Shel Greenberg Erba sits cross-legged on a yoga mat that reads, "Unfuck the world." She is not sitting in some cozy studio with natural light pouring in through glass windows, but instead at Mahall's, the bowling alley, concert venue bar and restaurant, which makes perfect sense. Here she is free to teach her brand of yoga, full of loud music, four-letter words and inner peace. She points to her cut up Jaws T-shirt and explains to this morning's Punk Rock Yoga class that she always thought the shark was a misunderstood villain: He was just hungry, you see.
"Now close your eyes and breathe," she says. "Find that hunger."
Erba's not here to say punk yoga — which she's taught in Cleveland for more than two years — can save the world, but it saved her.
About seven years ago, Erba quit her job and enrolled at Kent State University to realize her dream of teaching elementary school. That change came with a lot of stress and she needed a way to quiet her mind. At first, that wasn't yoga. She hated the first two classes.
"I'm really klutzy," the now 45-year-old says. "I'd been going to the gym, but I could barely touch my toes. The first two classes, I was really bad. I didn't understand the sweating; I didn't understand the breath. But then I connected with one teacher. Eventually my practice — it wasn't pretty, but it was mine."
When school teaching didn't pan out, yoga instruction became the new outlet. As a 40th birthday present, Erba's parents paid for her yoga teacher's training. Friends and family came to her first classes and laughed with her when she made mistakes.
At first she used the tranquil music found at most yoga studios. But at home she did her sun salutations while blasting David Bowie, Queens of the Stone Age, Sleater-Kinney and, of course, the Partridge Family. Online, she saw other yogis who'd combined the two. Her husband encouraged her to reach out to Beachland Ballroom to see if they had space for yoga with a punk attitude. The Ballroom gave her a shot, and Punk Rock Yoga has now expanded to Mahall's, Black Market and Tremont Athletic Club.
"I realized I didn't have to do the typical yoga, the slow yoga music, I could play what I wanted," says Erba, who's also a local rock photographer. "It's that feeling when you go to a show and the floorboards are shaking and you feel it up your legs and your arms. You feel like a rock star and it's exciting, but also there's a calm in that moment."
Not all yoga studios have welcomed Erba's classes. And Erba agrees her music choices aren't for everyone. Yet her goal is to make sure the people who do attend are not only safe, but "find the fire within."
"I think people new to yoga are worried about their sweat smelling or accidentally farting ... actually the farting in class is an initiation of sorts," Erba says with a laugh. "But it's finding the calm in the chaos, and that chaos can be really good excitement and it can be the stressful shitty anxiety. So if you can slow down the moment, you can be entirely present."
Today's class has students at a variety of ages and levels. Erba walks around making small corrections of hips and arm positions.
"Surf through those shark-infested waters," she tells the class during a tricky balancing pose. "You will come out the other side." — Laura Morrison