There are 23 students dispersed across three half-orderly rows along the linoleum floor. It’s just past 6 a.m., the air inside is heavy, almost wet, and the lights are dimmed to an orange hue. Outside, snow blusters across the parking lot, blowing against the windows of the Littleton-based studio.
A blond woman unrolls her mat in front of the floor-to-ceiling mirror, dressed head to toe in Lululemon’s technical fabric. Next to her another woman is fully reclined, her head half-shaved and one arm wrapped in vibrant ink flowers. Behind them, a flabby silver-haired man sits upright in tight red boxer shorts.
There is silence, except for the hum of a humidifier and the whir of fans circling heat somewhere in the walls. The subdued energy of an early morning wake-up imposes a soft weight upon everyone’s chest.
The studio’s door swings open and a man walks straight for the front of the room. He bounces up and down on his toes before coming to rest against the wall of mirrors. His voice booms, “Hello, Friday morning!”
Mark Stefanowski has already been awake for at least two hours. He’s had his coffee, eaten breakfast and showered. His upbeat vibes immediately alleviate some heaviness as everyone stirs and sits upright.
He begins: “Some of you know the details of my life, but, for now, long story short: I share custody of my dogs. This week I had the rare opportunity to spend eight straight days with them, and I was reminded of how much gratitude I have for those who are on my team — those that support and encourage me. I love my dogs, and they love me.”
He walks toward the back of the studio. “Let’s get into down dog,” he commands, and Lulu Barbie, Inked Flowers and Red-Spandexed Grandpa all form inverted-V shapes. Mark walks around the room, letting his boisterous voice pump the room like air into a deflated tire. The collective breaths again grow heavy, and now labored, too. Starting a yoga class in down dog signals: We’re getting down to business.
Mark turns up the lights and cues a transition into a standing posture. No longer shrouded in a sauna-like glow, the 23 students are clear and visible in the mirror. Godsmack’s percussion-intense “Voodoo” roars through the speakers overhead — “I’m not the one who’s so far away…” — and Mark again starts bouncing on his toes. Though he’s 49, he acts decades younger. He skips back to the front of the room, “Let’s do this, Friday!” and claps his hands as though sealing a deal.
His black T-shirt reads “Outlaw Yoga,” and he’s wearing a white bandana tied taught around his forehead. The fabric’s line creases an inch above his grey-blue eyes, which are framed below by worn, tough skin. His scraggly silver beard, extending down to his chest, moves with his mouth when he cues the next series of movements.
Everyone ends up in a lunge position: left knee down on the floor and right knee up in a 90-degree angle. “Bring your palms together at your heart, and time to twist.” Everyone hooks their left elbow across their right thigh. “Yeaaaah,” he says. “Now bring more bend in the front knee, and let’s double duty this pose.”
Left hip flexors are now fully awake.
“Why didn’t anyone bring donuts? We could have triple-dutied! Only gluten-free and organic around here,” Mark says with a laugh — kuh yah a a aa aa a a! “Does anyone ever wonder where all the gluten goes when they take it out?” He pauses, looks around. “Only one person laughed! Either they’re more awake or asleep than the rest of you. I can’t tell!”
Lulu Barbie, Inked Flowers and Red-Spandexed Grandpa chuckle, ready to release the tension mounting along their hip flexors. Mark has gathered somewhat of a following in the Boulder area. Between being a Lululemon and Highball Energy ambassador, a CorePower instructor and founder of Outlaw Yoga, it’s a rare day when he’s not doing some yoga-related activity. He’s been teaching for almost six years, and just three weeks ago he quit his day job as a police computer salesman to devote his career full time to Outlaw Yoga.
At first, Outlaw Yoga was just a sign he’d taped to the door at the Harley Davidson shop where he taught his first class. But quickly, the concept expanded to encompass his entire persona and teaching style. Now he teaches around 10 classes per week and is working to expand his philosophy across the country: “You don’t have to fit into a certain box to do yoga. If you’re a human being you should do yoga.”
His laugh — kuh yah a a aa aa a a — reduces the tension building in a new, strenuous squat-like pose: feet placed wide, across the long side of the mat, toes facing the side of the room, knees approaching 90 degrees. “Star Pose!” He bellows, straightening his legs and throwing his arms big and wide overhead. A flaming skull is tattooed on his left forearm. The yogic Om symbol is etched into its forehead. Mark smiles wide, infusing truth into Nickelback’s “If Everyone Cared” — “Singing, amen I’m alive…”
Eventually we come into a different squat-like position, this time feet together, big toes touch, heels an inch apart. Arms frame the face, shoulders relax away from the ears. Chair pose. “Inhale,” he cues. “Exhale, and sit lower!” Heavy breathing rises over White Zombie’s guttural, head-banging “Thunder Kiss ’65.”
“Inhale! Exhale, airplane arms!” Everyone sweeps their arms down and back behind, fingers now pointing to the back of the room. Some experienced students instinctually rise to their toe mounds, a more challenging balance posture. “Yeaaaaaah,” Mark is grooving. “You can pick up your heels. I can’t bring myself to call this what other teachers call it: ‘Drinking Bird,’ or whatever. You are all mighty eagles! Drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon!”
Lulu Barbie, Inked Flowers and Red-Spandexed Grandpa smile. Mark’s laugh is contagious. His mission to create a space where anyone can fit in is obviously successful. He teaches at breweries, plays rock ‘n’ roll and dresses like a biker dude for yoga — all because he is a biker dude. Outlaw Yoga, he says, is nothing more than a technically simple and physically challenging practice that has succeeded as an alternative to traditional yoga.
A lot of students that come to his weekly brewery classes (at Sanitas in Boulder, the Tasty Weasel in Longmont, and CHUBurger in Dever) would never set foot in a yoga studio, he says. In providing an unconventional, “More ‘woo hoo’ than ‘woo woo,’ style,” Mark teamed up with Denver-based Justin Kaliszewski to expand the Outlaw style. Last year, they opened a studio in Littleton and now host events, workshops and classes across the Front Range.
Last January, Yoga Journal published a study analyzing yoga in the United States. They found not only do Americans pump more than $16 billion per year into the yoga industry, but also that there are at least 80 million Americans who want to try yoga but haven’t yet. They estimate that only 36.7 million Americans currently practice yoga. “The thing is,” Mark says after class, drinking a straight black cup of coffee, “Every time the Yoga Journal comes out with this study, it’s the same thing. More people want to try, and there are all these great entries, so why isn’t that actually shifting? That is a mission that I have. I want people to go, ‘I feel like I fit in.’ That’s why I do what I do.”
Mark still teaches at CorePower, where he did his initial teacher training. The studio chain, known for their consistency and predictability, is something that Mark honors and appreciates. But he still doesn’t allow them to tame his spirit.
In class, he cues, “Let’s go — shitty triangle! Lift your arms up to frame your face.” Everyone tries to lift up the arm that was formerly supporting them. “Seriously! Some yoga teacher just made this pose up for you guys to feel something different. And that [means] suffering in yoga-teacher speak, by the way.”
Some years ago, on Christmas Day, Mark was pulled over and handed a DUI slip. Instead of continuing on the path he was on, he started going to yoga. He lost 85 pounds and was inspired enough to do a “yogi training,” to deepen his personal practice, and he eventually enrolled in a teacher training too.
The first class he taught, in that Harley Davidson shop, he leaned against a motorcycle thinking: “This is so fucking cool.” When a biker friend who’d taken the class sat up out of savasana and Mark saw the look on his face, that was the moment he knew that he needed to spread this kind of experience as far as he could.
Though he’s now a full-time yoga-man, Mark still makes time for his Harley. One of the parallels that Mark finds between the motorcycle world and the yoga world is a special intimacy. “When you walk into the yoga studio you have something in common with everyone in that room. And when you see people on Harleys, you know they like to ride. The question is,” he pauses, swirling the black coffee around, “are you going to use that to connect?”
Mark dims the lights in the studio back down. Everyone is reclined in savasana. An acoustic version of “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters plays softly. “You’ve worked hard this morning. Thank you for being here. Thank you for showing up. Thank you for being on my team.”
After a couple minutes, the students filter out. Mark overhears one saying, “See, I told you he’s crazy. But the yoga is so good.”