I did van Gogh yoga as the world burned. Here’s what it was like

Anke Neustadt

I can remember the first time I saw the poster. I was in line downtown for my booster shot. Delta was on the wane. Nobody knew yet how bad Omicron would be.

That’s how I remember it now, at least. Although in retrospect, we did know, or we should have. The signs were all there. But the signs have never really been our problem during COVID-19. Wave after wave, it’s reading them that’s let us down.

The poster, bathed in those telltale blues, seemed at once a fossil and a wormhole — a remnant from a previous world, before COVID, and a bright, baffling artifact from some new land yet to come. “Gogh With the Flow,” it read, and with those words it wormed its way inside my mushy brain.

At the vaccine clinic, I stayed in line but kept glancing back. Eventually, I searched for it on my phone. I thought it might be a high-concept prank, but it was real: an ad for a yoga class inside an immersive exhibit of paintings by Vincent van Gogh — an invitation, in other words, to relax inside the massive, projected mind of the most famously mentally ill man in the history of Western art.

Toronto's "Immersive Van Gogh" exhibit occupies a section of the ground floor of the Toronto Star building, at the foot of Yonge Street, where the newspaper printing presses used to be.

I had made the mistake, before Omicron, of planning again. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I was actively mapping out new things in my mind. We planned to fly to Calgary for Christmas, to give my daughter time with the cousins she barely remembered or hadn’t met. I hoped to finish a book proposal after the holidays. I mapped out a new class I planned to teach and new stories I hoped to write.

It’s not that anything was over then, as Delta backed offstage, but it did feel better. It didn’t seem strange to have friends over for dinner, to huddle around a crowded table, to hug a vaccinated friend. It was a heat wave I took for spring. And when it ended, I tumbled toward something numb.

Christmas was a haze of rapid tests and family tension amid record Calgary cold as case counts soared. In the new year, schools were set to reopen in Ontario until suddenly, at the last minute, they weren’t. And then, on top of Omicron, we had record snow and the doors stayed closed.

“Something pummels us,” Annie Dillard once wrote. And I felt pummelled by those days, by online kindergarten, by the things I wasn’t getting done, by my own sense that for the first time in the pandemic, I didn’t know how I was supposed to feel, what I was supposed to wish for, what was the actual right thing.

Maybe that’s why it stuck with me, that poster. Maybe that’s why I kept turning it over in my mind. It had seemed like a bit of a joke at first ̶ some focus-grouped, super-pumped version of what it meant to feel well. But at a certain point, super-pumped started to sound about right to me, like the bare minimum I’d need to pull me out and push me through.

And so, in early February, I booked a ticket: $54.99 all in. I dug my yoga mat out from under the stairs. I made my bid for Zen.

It might not have been rational. The paintings never worked for van Gogh, after all. He was miserable even in his best, most productive years. But maybe they would for me. If nothing else, these are not rational times.

Three days after schools finally reopened for in-person learning in Toronto, a convoy of truckers (or “truckers,” depending on your point of view) drove into Ottawa, set up a hot tub and settled in for a long and furious protest. A week later, my daughter woke up with a mild fever. She tested positive on a rapid test. Within 24 hours she was virtually symptom free. So that’s COVID, I thought.

But it wasn’t, not for me. Five days later, I had it. It started in my chest, a sharp ache when I walked that I couldn’t stretch out. Soon, my legs were tingling, almost numb when I went up a set of outdoor stairs. I walked home and tried to work, but even sitting down I couldn’t catch my breath. I stretched out on a futon and dragged in air.

Clinically speaking, it wasn’t that bad. I was never hospitalized. I never needed oxygen. I was just, for 10 days, really sick. At night, I couldn’t sleep because of the pain. I couldn’t eat most solids. I could barely swallow anything that wasn’t liquid or cold or preferably both. My brain spun out when I tried to read. There was an almost physical ringing in my left ear.

To make matters stranger, all of this was happening as the public health response to the virus itself was shutting down. “We’re done with it,” the premier of Ontario said on Valentine’s Day, as I lay in bed, my throat raw, drinking a 7-Eleven Slurpee for the first time in 20 years. “Let’s just start moving on.”

Participants in the class at Toronto's "Immersive Van Gogh" exhibit last month.

By lucky coincidence, my van Gogh yoga date fell exactly two weeks after I tested positive for COVID-19. By the time that Thursday came around, I wasn’t fully better. My eyes still ached in light and my head seemed full of cotton wool. But the doctor assured me I wasn’t infectious. And so, on the morning Russia invaded Ukraine, I put on my stretchy pants, I found my water bottle and I took the subway downtown, toward the building where I technically work but have rarely been in the 15 pandemic months that I’ve had this job.

Toronto’s “Immersive Van Gogh” exhibit (there are now many spread cross North America) occupies a section of the ground floor of the Toronto Star building, at the foot of Yonge Street, where the newspaper printing presses used to be. The show builds on an idea that began in France, in 2008, and took off more recently on this side of the Atlantic thanks to expiring copyrights on the art itself and a hit-making appearance on the Netflix show “Emily in Paris.”

It’s an easy enough thing to be cynical about. The vibe is a bit Pink Floyd laser light show for the Instagram age and the gift shop has to be seen to be believed. There are van Gogh socks for sale, of course, but also van Gogh robes, van Gogh buckets hats, van Gogh mouse pads, tote bags and cufflinks, all lined up in endless aisles that stretch half the length of the building.

As for the exhibit itself, it left me cold. It felt less like being surrounded by a masterpiece than living inside a screensaver. Like so much in the pandemic, it felt two-dimensional. It lacked the alien impasto depth of a real van Gogh ̶ those radical layers that clutch at you in person, that root you and force you to stare.

But I wasn’t there for the exhibit. I was there for the yoga. And the yoga had barely begun before I realized I had made a serious mistake.

Barre Flow is a yogalike intensive "workout system."

Before the pandemic, I did yoga almost every Monday night at a community centre near my home. But my last class was on Feb. 24, 2020 and, in the two years since, my body had grown stiff and soft from desk work and panic eating.

I had imagined myself, surrounded by projected sunflowers and bleary stars, settling into restful poses and sprouting wise thoughts. I pictured myself scurrying to my Notes app at the end of class, desperate to capture all my new insight into these awful months.

But I hadn’t read the fine print. What I’d signed up for was not yoga, per se, but Barre Flow, a yogalike intensive “workout system.” And so, instead of contemplating, I fell over, twice. I grunted and twisted. I barely made it through the tiny, evil muscle pulses that make Barre so hard.

I didn’t think much about the pandemic during the class. I didn’t think much of anything other than “Oh God, I’m going to fall again.” But when it was over, when I was back home, what I felt was, despite myself, joy.

I’ve spent so much time thinking about what I missed during the pandemic, about movie theatres and galleries, about after-work drinks and playdates and swimming pools, but I don’t think I had realized, until that class, how much I missed not thinking at all.

Last fall, Carina del Valle Schorske published an essay in the New York Times Magazine about public dance during the summer before Delta. “I don’t always mean to sound so serious,” she wrote at one point in the piece. “Sometimes I mean that I want very badly to pin somebody to the club wall with my butt.”

That’s the feeling I missed, not contemplating or ruminating, but doing something with enough focus and joy to force everything else away. That’s the promise I saw in that poster, waiting in line for my shot. That’s why it stuck with me for so long. It seemed to offer a mash-up of pleasures from the old world, a blend of art and sweat that might consume me, even briefly.

I’m not sure how much the immersive van Gogh of it all had to with giving me that feeling, although it was impressive in some ways. (The yogis in front of me, for example, were able to pose expertly while at the same time taking pictures of themselves posing, through twisted limbs, in front of the projected face of a man who had recently severed his own ear.) But I am nonetheless grateful for the exhibit, for catching my eye and sticking in my brain.

It brought me in. And that was enough.


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