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Less Than Zen: ‘Om City’ on Life as a Female Yoga Teacher

Less Than Zen: 'Om City' on Life as a Female Yoga Teacher

Web series — at least the ones I’ve covered — tend to share a certain archness of tone. Which is understandable: You’ve got to be snappy to hold people’s attention for even a handful of minutes in the neverending ADD circus that is the internet.

But there’s still something refreshing about finding a web series that doesn’t primarily traffic in snark, which is one of the things I really appreciated about “Om City.” Premiering at the end of this month, it’s created by director Tom O’Brien (“Fairhaven”) and actress and yoga teacher Jessie Barr, who plays central character Grace.

Pairing yoga and humor can be a challenge. As someone who’s been practicing — moderately — for many years, I enjoy a good yoga takedown, but I also hold genuine reverence for it. As Barr and O’Brien clearly do, combining humor with a fundamental belief that yoga has the power to heal and help.

In a series of episodes that range from about five to ten minutes, we see harried New Yorker Grace scrambling around the city, from yoga class to private appointment to very occasional social engagement. Barr, being an actual instructor, knows the terrain and the tone, and so is very convincing in the role. If you’ve ever wondered about the realities of this profession, “Om City” gives a gently funny but pointed look behind the scenes. It also specifically addresses the kind of thorny issues (including lecherous male clients) that female yoga teachers deal with on a daily basis.

The first few episodes, particularly, deal with the indignities of trying to make a living teaching yoga in one of the most expensive cities in the world. “How much do you make?” her pot-dealer brother asks Grace. “$50 or $60 per class,” she tells him, at which her incredulous sibling suggests she should probably pursue something more financially stable — like selling weed. But Grace is (like any good New Yorker) determined to make it work; if she teaches upwards of 20 classes a week, she can totally make rent.

Then there are the interactions with students, which, if you’ve ever taken a class, you’ll know present neverending challenges to a teacher’s patience and sense of humor. In the first episode, we see Grace adjusting a student’s headstand posture while the student can’t stop farting. “I didn’t even notice,” she assures the student afterward — a kind if boldfaced lie. Another episode tweaks the common occurrence of that oblivious person who waltzes into class ten minutes late and makes everyone shove their mats closer together.

We see Grace teaching a private lesson at the home of a cheesy rich guy who comes to the door to greet her wearing only a towel, which she deals with, well, as gracefully as possible. In a guest spot, Chris Messina (“The Mindy Project”) shows up in another episode as a private client who can’t (read: won’t) stop checking his phone while she’s trying to get him to relax and meditate. Finally reaching her limit, she starts to pack up and leave — which is when she gets through to him. At least a little.

The fifth episode dealt with another issue I’ve always wondered about: How do teachers stay so chill when someone’s yapping away through the “final relaxation pose,” where students lie on the ground in silence for a few minutes? In New York, it’s hard to find silence, and more often than not, your meditative break is intermittently interrupted by various street noises. Generally, a teacher’s advice is to tune them out — and they usually sound like this should be no big thing. But when Grace takes a class taught by a male friend, he gets into a full-on shouting match with a suit outside talking on his cell phone. It’s not very zen, but it’s pretty funny (and makes me wonder how many seemingly cool yogis long to do the same).

Director O’Brien casts himself as Mitchell, the owner of the studio where Grace teaches, and he’s the embodiment of the movement to make yoga less spiritual and more attractive to fitness-obsessed New Yorkers. He wants Grace to stop doing the “om” chant at the beginning of class, as he thinks it’s weird and off-putting. He encourages his teachers to take to Instagram, praising one clueless instructor who’s been taking “secret selfies” of students lying, unaware, in final relaxation pose, and posting them online. Yikes.

We also see Grace with her parents. A scene in which she’s trying to teach her mother (Maryann Plunkett, who played Evelyn Baxter on “House of Cards”) to meditate goes south as her father won’t stop yelling questions from the next room. On an internet date with a boorish narcissist, Grace is told in the first five minutes that he thinks yoga is bullshit.

Through most of this, though, Barr’s character maintains her equilibrium — with the exception of a heart-to-heart with other teachers in which she confesses, “I feel fake. How can I say I’m a teacher and a leader in my life when I have so much fear and doubt in my heart? I’m scared I won’t ever be able to stop falling behind, and I hate that I doubt myself and my abilities all the time, and I act like I have no ugliness and anger, and I do.” It’s an honest and relatable moment, and it made me like “Om City” all the more for not feeling compelled to follow it up with a punchline.

Check it out on omcityseries.com, starting on the 30th.

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