There is no clock on the wall of this yoga class. In fact, there are no walls at all, only the blue sky overhead and the wide open ocean. The laughter and chatter of the Polar Bears and the blare of the ferry horn take the place of the soothing, meditative chants typically played during sun salutations. And yet, for the past four summers, Anderson Bourell has been using this open stretch of public beach as a classroom, teaching yoga and spreading an inspirational message of healing to hundreds.
The class began serendipitously. He had been living in Los Angeles for a few years, but tired of city life; Mr. Bourell accepted an offer from his aunt to spend a summer on the Island. She had just finished building a house here and had extra room. Always an early riser, Mr. Bourell likes to get outside and welcome each new day. One morning, he found himself at Inkwell Beach and sunk into the sand. As he stretched out his body and soaked in the sunrise, a woman crept up behind him. She asked if he was doing yoga. He said yes. She asked if he could show her. He agreed. She asked when. He suggested the following morning, same time, same place.
The next day, both were there as promised. As Mr. Bourell taught, two more women approached the pair. A conversation much like the one the previous day ensued. The following morning, the three women joined him and a tradition was born. Mr. Bourell arrived at the beach every morning that summer and every morning, more people were there.
Mr. Bourell is reluctant to call what he does yoga. He does not like to call himself a teacher or call the group of people that have assembled over the years — 87 on his busiest day — a class. He calls it a gathering and their practice a celebration of health and the body, the future and the present.
Mr. Bourell did not always view his body as something to celebrate. Tall and athletic, the 34-year-old spent his high school years playing football, basketball, baseball and rowing crew at his New England prep school. Before he even began thinking about college, recruiters started talking. But, just as opportunity was knocking, Mr. Bourell sustained a string of injuries. “I have athleticism, but I’m not durable,” he said recently. Rather than accept the injuries and care for himself, Mr. Bourell did what he said is typical in American society. “I got sad and angry and frustrated at myself,” he said. “It’s like, in the weight training room, you are creating a body out of frustration or a desire to be better, but in a combative way.”
After high school graduation, Mr. Bourell did not know what he wanted to do, but knew that he had to try something new and get away from home. He liked movies and acting and short stories, so he booked a plane ticket to Los Angeles and crossed his fingers. Once there, he called up the pitching coach for the University of California, Los Angeles baseball team on a whim. The two began to train one on one. “It was great because there was no competition,” he said. But soon, the professionals again expressed interest and shortly thereafter, the injuries started again. Again he blamed his own body.
To stay fit while injured, he accepted an invitation from a friend to try surfing in La Jolla, California. “I was paddling out on my board and my shoulder was hurting and I started getting mad about it. I just started hearing the voices of all these coaches. ‘Push through it!’ ‘Don’t be a wussy!’ ‘Work through the pain!’ And I just stopped paddling and thought, ‘What the hell have I become? I don’t want to be this anymore,’” he said. And so he stopped paddling. “I said, ‘I’m not going to move until I can talk to myself kindly.’”
He lay on his board, motionless in the sun for what felt like ages. Slowly, he began to hear the ocean, as if for the first time. “I started feeling the sun and feeling the temperature of the water,” he said. He put his hands back in the water, letting them just dangle. He lowered in his arms and began to paddle. “Then I moved,” he said. “And then I surfed.”
The experience turned him around. He began taking yoga classes, changed his diet and started sharing his outlook with friends. It was not until he grew tired of Los Angeles and tried a summer on the Vineyard that he found a way to spread his message. “It started out with me and God,” he said in a reflective way of his practice at the Inkwell. “And then there were two and then there were four.” By the end of that first summer, 20 people were routinely bringing their towels to the beach to celebrate the start of the day and shake out their bodies. “Wherever a person is in their life, that’s where I meet them,” Mr. Bourell said of his style. “It’s become a community thing and a hopeful thing.” Mr. Bourell now comes to the beach every morning at 8, except for Sundays. He charges no fee and instead leaves out a cooler to collect donations, which he rarely even asks for.
Soon, once the mornings get colder and school gets under way, Mr. Bourell will return to the Boston area where he teaches yoga, meditation and nutrition at a private school and with the Harvard crew teams. He hopes to return to the Island this fall to teach a workshop and plans to be back at the Inkwell next summer. Despite his following, he remains humble about what he brings to each student. “Here is the healing environment,” he said, gazing out at his makeshift classroom, empty now after the early morning rush. “I’m just here reminding them that this,” he said, tapping both his legs, “this is the stuff of legend.”