The Original Yoga Shorts
Periodically, I undertake a major purge of my closets and drawers. Anything I haven’t worn in the past two years goes up for grabs. Most items go to good homes with good friends, where they will be much more likely to see the light of day than they did at my house.
A few items have lived in storage for much, much longer than two years, but they are not going anywhere, despite the fact that I don’t plan to wear them again. One such item is a pair of maroon-colored velour gym shorts I first saw more than 25 years ago.
I remember it like it was yesterday: A golden-haired, blue-eyed Yoga student of several years walked into a Monday night intermediate class wearing the maroon shorts. These were not just any old gym shorts, however. These shorts were designed for Yoga practice. Each leg was finished with a thigh-hugging band that kept the shorts from riding up in headstand and shoulderstand, and kept privates private in wide-legged poses.
The enterprising Yoga student was Sara Chambers. A student in classes taught by Iyengar teachers Cita Mason and David Riley—also a physical therapist and physician respectively—Sara built custom furniture for a living. Her new shorts were as carefully crafted as her sturdy furniture. I still use the oak stereo cabinet and coffee table Sara built for me 25 years ago.
That very evening Sara began taking orders for the shorts from local students and teachers. At the time I was Cita and David’s teaching assistant. I attended several classes a week with them, practiced with them and assisted in their beginning classes. So I ordered two pairs in two different colors, thinking I’d surely need more than one.
Sara’s shorts were not simply sized as small, medium or large. At that time they were custom made for each person’s measurements. Sara would bring a tape measure to classes, and later, when she began selling her shorts nationally, she provided an illustration in the catalog of how each person could take their own measurements. This was hardly a model for mass production, but the shorts fit perfectly.
Within a year or two Sara had expanded the products she manufactured and sold to include mats (the Tapas Mat that Sara developed was the first made-for-Yoga nonskid mat), straps, blocks (made in her own wood shop), sandbags and her custom yoga shorts. She named her company Hugger Mugger Yoga Products after the shorts that started it all. (Hugger Mugger is an archaic word that means “to conceal.”) By then she was selling her products nationwide.
This was, of course, well before Yoga hit the mainstream. The original maroon shorts, which Sara gave me a year or so after she made them, remind me of a time when the Yoga community was much smaller and more cohesive. Local teachers—there were about half-dozen of us—all knew and supported each other. We all showed up at one another’s classes and when a workshop came to town once or twice a year, it was a chance for us all to reconnect with each other and learn together. We practiced together in each other’s homes. There were no studios in Salt Lake City back then, just rented social halls, dance studios and the YWCA, which was perfect for workshops because you could fit 30 people—a huge class back in those days.
Hugger Mugger shorts were pretty much the sole expression of Yoga fashion, along with any old t-shirt. When I went to India to study at the Iyengar Institute in 1989, everyone—35 students from all over the US—wore them. The special Yoga shorts were functional because they allowed teachers to demonstrate alignment points clearly and to evaluate their students’ alignment for safety. The Iyengars wore their own version of them, made in India by a seamstress called “Needle Woman.”
Even now, when I attend workshops with Iyengar-certified teachers, I sometimes see Hugger Mugger shorts on teachers or students. Hugger Mugger still makes them. I stopped wearing them years ago, preferring Capri-length pants to short shorts. Still, unlike so much of my vintage clothing I can so easily part with, I’ve kept my velour Hugger Mugger prototypes. They remind me of my early years as a student and budding teacher and of the tight-knit community that sprouted the bursting-at-the-seams array of studios in Salt Lake today. Those memories anchor me to the roots of my lifelong Yoga journey.