Josh Shaffer

Oakwood Cemetery hosts yoga in the dark, with the dead

When Shawna Jones spread out her yoga mat, the only lights in the cemetery came from candles, headlamps and the planet Venus. It was too dark yet to read the names on the gravestones.

All around her, women in sleek leggings moved into downward dog, trying to free their stuck energy. Men in sutra pants bent themselves into bridge pose, opening up their heart gates. And as the sun rose over Oakwood Cemetery, the spirits of Raleigh wafted down to watch this curiosity: yoga among the dead.

“I’m thankful,” said Jones, 45. “I’m here with my friend. It’s her dad’s birthday, and he’s buried just over there. I said, ‘Why don’t we have coffee and toast his life on Earth?’ 

More than 150 people stretched out on the grass of the dark graveyard Friday, keeping a respectful distance from the tombs but close enough to see them peeking through the morning fog. Crickets chirped. Birds tweeted. A lullaby played through a small amplifier while I watched the crowd move into warrior pose, their arms in the air.

“You’re halfway between heaven and earth, right here,” said Carrington Jackson, their teacher from Blue Lotus. “Here, you shed the skin of the person who set their alarm. You’re trying on this new version of yourself.”

A critic might apply a dozen different adjectives to this scene: spooky, kooky, sacrilegious … I spent an hour watching the whole exercise, and I’ll reject them all.

First, any reader of this column knows that Oakwood has a long history of inviting the living to celebrate inside its gates. The same field where Shawna Jones practiced her cobra pose Friday has hosted a pig pickin’ and an Easter egg roll. This time last year, Oakwood invited people to leave candles and photos of their loved ones on a table marking Dia de los Muertos. While the yoga people stretched and meditated, a dozen more visitors jogged and zoomed past on bicycles.

“No pun intended, but I’ve been dying to do this,” said Robin Simonton, Oakwood’s executive director. “This was always designed to be a meditative place.”

Second, as Raleigh firefighter and predawn yoga enthusiast Barry “Rusty” Fennell told me, Raleigh is sprouting yoga studios faster than microbreweries. I did a quick Google search and turned up even more offbeat locales enthusiasts have chosen: in a car while stuck in traffic, in an airport while delayed, at Machu Picchu in Peru.

Jackson, the teacher from Blue Lotus, told me that she and her partners from Happy + Hale health food on Fayetteville Street pick a new spot one Friday a month.

“We did it at Dorothea Dix park,” she said. “And the top of the Capital Club. There’s such a buzz about it. I love when people come up to me and say, ‘I didn’t know yoga could be like that.’ 

Third, and maybe you’ll disagree, but I believe that the dead love company. From the hill where I watched this spectacle, ringed by the graves of city fathers, I imagined R. Stanhope Pullen waking from a century’s rest, rubbing the sleep from his eyes and peering down from his obelisk, intrigued at the silent people lying flat on their backs.

As the session finished, Jackson thanked the spirits for their presence and attention.

“The fog is rolling in,” she said. “It couldn’t be any better than this. It’s a reminder that life is short. Even a 90-year-old life, in the grand scheme of things. We’re here to make the most of it. We’re here to make mistakes. We’re here to find joy. We’re here to make connections. It’s not wasted. Let’s live it. Let’s be it.”

And as the group scattered into the day, Jones and her friend Rita Dorry, 25, went to make their toast at her father’s grave. You could almost hear the dead whisper to them, leading the way.