Volume 78 / Number 9 - July 30 - August 5, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since

Villager photos by Jefferson Siegel

Headstands are a standard part of the yoga routine for many in Paz’s class. But others who are not at that level do other stretches or positions.

Finding peace with Paz and $7 yoga on Sixth St.

By Laurie Mittelmann

“It’s O.K. if your vision appears blurry,” Paz said. “It means that you’re doing the pose correctly.”

His hands touched the small of my back, reminding me to sit up. The yoga class is his garden and he carefully stepped through it, tending to the students. He pulled a foot over one man’s hip to make a tight lotus flower. He grasped another student’s wilted head and reoriented it toward the ceiling. As he moved through the room, the teacher cultivated each student’s strengths.

Paz, whose given name is Steven Prestianni, has been teaching this class at the Sixth Street Community Center for five years. Although the class requires no registration and students pay only what they can afford, the quality of instruction couldn’t be higher.

“He’s been a neighborhood guru for many years,” Howard Brandstein, the center’s director, said of the 48-year-old squatter, who calls himself a “chocolate dealer.” Paz distributes chocolate from Grenada via bicycle for a friend, one of many selfless acts.

He has taught yoga as a volunteer to multiple sclerosis victims in wheelchairs, overweight women in a New Jersey prison and 7-year-old students at an elementary school on the Lower East Side.

“I have many children, but I have never given birth,” Paz said.

My first class, two months ago, was the day before my father died. My mother was braiding my hair in bed next to him when a blood clot entered his pulmonary artery and cut off his breathing. For days, I wore his cologne, put my lips to the half-drunken glass of sherry on his desk and imagined myself suffocating when I lost my breath from running.

The morning of my father’s funeral, I finished an article for The Villager, and the next day I forced myself back to work, catching Paz on my lunch break while he did construction work — free of charge — in a friend’s apartment.

He waited for me to speak.

“I decided to attend class,” I told him. “I want to keep doing things.”

He nodded and hugged me. My friend, also a student, told me that people often break down during yoga and that I shouldn’t feel embarrassed if I started crying.

The community center’s building has been nurturing the spirits of Lower East Side residents for years. It functioned as a synagogue when Eastern Europeans immigrated to the area.

“Hundreds of years of praying have gone into the space,” Brandstein, the director, said.

With the center no longer an active synagogue, neighborhood residents wanted a space to exercise without the costs of private gyms or equipment. Many asked for a yoga class. The center provided a room on the first floor and about 20 mats. Paz stepped up to lead the classes that now meet two nights a week, on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Wearing a white tank top and frayed shorts that he recovered from dumpsters, Paz sat on an orange towel at the front of the room. At his side there was a bag sewed from old jeans with four pockets for dollar bills, each filled with a different denomination. He leaves money available for students to get their own change if they choose to make a donation after meditation. Paz usually tells people that the class only costs $7.

“The direct money exchange is cheap to me,” Paz said. “It’s richer for me not to focus on that part of the class.”

Since he is a squatter, Paz doesn’t have to work long hours to pay excessive rent. He only spends money on organic produce, Yogi brand “Breathe Deep” licorice tea and recycled denim insulation from Green Depot in Brooklyn for the walls of his apartment.

Breathing is the root of a yoga practice, grounding people deep into poses and meditation. When one is able to slow the breath, the mind slows and there is a feeling of union between the body and the thoughts. After witnessing the gasps that sent my father into cardiac arrest, I developed a fear of losing my breath and was unable to use the breathing as Paz instructed.

In class, he kneeled down to a student, dark dreadlocks falling around his face as he whispered an alternative way to perform an asana, or exercise.

“Yes,” he cried, as the student twisted her back and turned her head to look behind her. He embodied the thrill of her stretch with his enthusiasm, and he held her in the posture until he felt that she was supporting herself.

“Sometimes, I see expressions of entrapment, as if they’re stuck in torture chambers of their bodies and straightjackets of the asanas and they want to break out,” he said, his eyes widening as he described what he sees walking around the classroom.

“Recently, I saw someone coming out of the forward bending pose with an enormous smile,” he said. “It was beautiful.”

Brian Porzak, a film producer, writer and director from the West Village and four-year-veteran of the class, begins the yoga practice when he starts relaxing on the walk or bike ride to the center. He clears his mind for the intense meditation to come.

“At other places it’s yogarobics — an old class with an American spin on it,” Porzak said, referring to the speed that makes most yoga classes like boot camp.

Paz received the name Anandabhairava when he learned his slower system of yoga from a Japanese master, Mahayogi.

“When I met Mahayogi it became instantaneously clear what I needed to do,” Paz said. “I needed to sit perfectly still and be comfortable sitting perfectly still.”

When new students are told to lie on their backs and close their eyes between basic poses, others like Porzak perform advanced exercises. Porzak perches on his knees with his feet behind him and bends backwards to grab his heels in the camel pose. He also stands on his head, a pose he never thought he’d be able to do years ago, but can now hold for several minutes every morning.

“Yoga has given me a new perspective on life,” Porzak said. “I now see it upside down.”

Ariane Burgess introduced Porzak to the class, which she tells everyone to try at least four times before deciding whether to stick with it. She said that no one could understand what the class has to offer by only attending one session.

“In the wintertime, I could never get warm,” she said. “After I started doing yoga practice, that went away. I think it allowed a release of energy in my body that wasn’t circulating properly before.”

Burgess also learned to make dietary changes from the yoga practice. She felt coffee contributed to stiffness and aching while stretching, and that without it she was able to get into positions that she could never reach previously.

Paz has become one of her closest friends. He helps construct her artwork — pathways through public spaces made of natural and recycled materials, meant to help people find inner peace, balance and realizations.

People recover from many physical ailments by practicing yoga. JK Canepa, an advocate and community organizer for people in adult homes, used heroin and cocaine for 30 years before she came to a class that Paz led at another community center, CHARAS/El Bohio, in 2001.

“For years, I was so stiff that I couldn’t even lie on my stomach,” she said. “The day after the first class, I was walking down the street and it felt like someone had taken a wrench and removed bolts from my spine. I felt so free.”
Harry Bubbins, founding director of the South Bronx environmental group Friends of Brook Park, who has also been attending the class since it was held at CHARAS, knows Paz through marches, demonstrations and boat trips on the city’s waterways. He regularly sees Paz picking up and delivering compost around the Lower East Side.

“I have attended classes at other prominent centers in New York City and I appreciate the ultra-unpretentious nature of these sessions,” Bubbins said in an e-mail. “Paz sincerely wants to share something that improves our well-being and brings peace to the planet.”

Indeed, his name, Paz, means “peace” in Spanish.

While the practice is available for everyone, it takes willpower to accomplish. For a couple of weeks after I returned to the class, I closed my eyes when my vision blurred, and I didn’t participate in the breathing exercise. I didn’t want to lose control of my body or think about air passing through my lungs. I watched each small ant that crawled past me on the floor and imagined that it was my father.

Impatient after several weeks of pretending, I rolled up my mat one day and left the room early.

“I have to go,” I whispered to Paz on the way out. “Sorry.”

I told my friends a more honest story, which one of them related to him — that I wasn’t comfortable thinking about breathing. Before the next class, Paz encouraged me to stay until the end.

“You can leave,” he said. “But I think you should try to let me help you.”

When Paz led students into the alternate-nostril breathing, I wondered how he might assist me. I closed my eyes for a minute, attempting to follow his instructions. I opened my eyes to see him crouched directly in front of my mat.

“Inhale through your left nostril,” he told me, counting off seconds on his fingers as he, too, breathed in. “Exha-a-a-ale through your right.”

That day, Paz didn’t walk around the class until it was time to initiate meditation. He knew that I needed more help and he stayed with me the entire time, taking me through each breath.

Laurie Mittelmann is a student at Sarah Lawrence College and is interning as a reporter with The Villager this summer.

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