On a recent Wednesday in Bushwick, Brooklyn, Saskia Thode gave birth to the spawn of Satan in the back of a bar called the Cobra Club. So did the students attending her heavy-metal yoga class that day. Thode dubbed each of the imaginary babies Abigail, in honor of the fictional stillborn child that lent her name to King Diamond's 1987 concept album. Moments later, Thode was pelting around the Cobra Club's back room attempting to steal her students' imaginary Abigails as songs by Bolt Thrower and Waylander thundered through the speakers behind her. This was just one surreal sequence in a jam-packed, highly aerobic Metal Yoga Bones class that careened through yoga, tag, dancing — an approximation of an Irish jig at one point; cheerful, Broadway-meets-metal leg kicks at another — headbanging and a series of uproarious role-play sequences based on violent metal imagery.
"Now we're going to chop off some heads," Thode announced, before the class pretended to do just that. There was also a touch of mimed disembowelment — "Spill their guts!" Thode roared — and drinking the blood of one's slain enemies, which doubled as a rare moment to gasp for air in a breathless 75 minutes. Thode led the entire class with a death-metal growl, sometimes alternating with her "creepy witch voice."
"It's not like a yoga class where you are told what to do and which leg to use," Thode tells Revolver later, pulling at a cinnamon sugar donut as Cobra Club patrons swig beer and sing along to glum Eighties hits — Morrissey, the Cure — around her. "I don't really care what you do, as long as you have fun. The idea is to make yoga and exercising accessible for anyone who wants to try it without any judgement and also without any expectation. You just enjoy the moment and do what you can do. Some people have a drink before they come in, or we drink while we do it. There's no rules. It's freedom."
Which came first, the yoga or the metal? "The metal, obviously," Thode says. She grew up in Germany two and a half hours north of Hamburg; her mother was a metalhead. Thode ticks off the household soundtrack: "A lot of power metal, some of the harder Metallica stuff ..." She went to her first metal festival with her mother at age 12, starting a tradition that only lapsed when Thode moved to the U.S. in 2006. (They revisited it last summer, though, when she taught yoga at Germany's massive Wacken Open Air festival — her mom sold her merch.) And as Thode started to discover music on her own, she pushed her mother to try new strains of heavy music. "When I was 12, I got her into Sodom!" Thode says proudly. To the casual music fan (someone who doesn't listen to much metal) and the casual yogi (someone only familiar with the standard class' serene, wind-chime-heavy soundtrack), the idea of combining the ancient Indian discipline with headbanging riffery might seem nonsensical — like mixing peanut butter and mustard. But it's easy to spot the connection between the two when you hear Thode describe her passion for metal. "It's such a good release of stress and anger," she says. "It helps me a lot to deal with emotional things I have going on. It's also super relaxing. The way the music works can easily get you into a trance. I could fall asleep listening to certain kinds of metal. Black metal just puts me in a total Zen state."
Thode started taking yoga at age 18 to help recover from a car accident. "I had a few vertebrae that were stuck together and immobilized," she remembers. "I also had a lot of anxiety and problems with sleep. At a gym in the area, after a while of physical therapy, I started to go there for tai chi and the sauna that they had. Then I saw they had yoga, and I was like, 'Let me try it.'"
Thode immediately felt the benefits. "After the first classes I was able to sleep," she recalls. Soon her back problems vanished. "It changed everything for me," she says. She started practicing more frequently when she moved to New York City at age 21 to be with her then-boyfriend, who worked at a shipping company.
"I'm from the countryside, a rural area. When I moved here, I felt very disconnected from nature," Thode says. "Yoga became a replacement almost for nature, a way to find peace in the tumult of the city." She eventually landed a job at a furniture company and ended up as head of operations, where the "super stressful" work environment and 70-hour work weeks furthered her need for yoga. "Operations is a really hard place to be in," she says. "Everything comes together there. You have to deal with rich and annoying people. I did my yoga every day. When I got too stressed out at work, I would go behind my desk and do yoga."
As much as she relied on yoga as a "safety blanket," Thode also began to note things she didn't like about the scene. "For a little while I went to the YogaWorks downtown, and because of the way I look, I had people put distance between me and their mats," she recalls. (Thode has plenty of tattoos, a seemingly endless supply of metal tees and a long, tightly woven blonde braid that reaches down her back.) "They were so judgmental.
"And some yoga can be really competitive," she continues. "If you go to certain studios, it's like, 'If he can do that, I'm going to do that.'" Lastly, she grew tired of "all the enlightened talk." "It's so hard to always stay calm and peaceful," she says. "Gentle, sweet, ahhhh. It drives me crazy."
Thode began teaching proto-metal yoga at the bar and metal club Saint Vitus while she was working towards her yoga teacher's certification. "I wanted to practice teaching and my friends who were metalheads were like, 'Should I come to a class?' And I know the guys at Saint Vitus, and they were like, 'You can use the bar when there's no one there,'" she says. Thode describes the early classes as still "very yoga-ish," but she added a metal playlist and frequently called on her students to throw up metal horns. "Over time," she continues, "it just became more and more wild and crazy."
After earning her certification, Thode offered her first heavy-metal yoga class for money in 2014. She started teaching at the Cobra Club as well as Saint Vitus, but initially class attendance was erratic. "For a few months, I had so many classes where I showed up and nobody else did," she says. "That was very discouraging. But I just kept it up. In 2014 I had something published on Brokelyn.com. And then early 2015, I think, I had something in The Washington Post — some girl who came randomly to my class was writing for them. More people read about it and knew about it. I became better at doing events on Facebook. I started an Instagram."
She also started posting her playlists from every class on Spotify so metalheads and yogis alike could follow along. There is an evangelizing aspect to Thode's mission, which she describes as "introducing yoga to everyone who doesn't like yoga studios, not just metalheads. And get metal out to people who usually wouldn't listen to metal."
She tries to make a new playlist for every single class, sometimes taking up to three hours to finalize the song selection. "It's an education in music for myself and also the people around to me," she explains. "I've gotten to know so many bands just through making playlists. And a lot of people come in like, 'Oh, what was that song?'" In class at the Cobra Club, she occasionally quizzed her students on the track that was playing. "Ten pushups!" she demanded when a student admitted she was stumped. "Just kidding." The song sequencing is important, too: Thode likes to start fast, speed up and then end with a few more contemplative tunes. "We open with groovy and fun songs that are easy to warm up to and dance along to," she explains. "Then I go into faster heavy metal, black metal, grindcore. Then we go up even higher."
Thode dubs the peak of the class "the glorious moment." "That's where I put on songs that everyone knows and really likes," she says. "You're sweating, you're getting sore, your legs are burning, but your heart opens to it, you want to sing along." At the class Revolver attended, "the glorious moment" involved AC/DC's "You Shook Me All Night Long" and copious amounts of air guitar. "After that I bring it back down slowly," she continues. "Maybe a sludge or doom-metal song, something slow and heavy that can bring us back to earth."
In contrast to the carefully planned playlist, the sequence of movements that defines each class is mostly improvised. "Something pops into my head and I just go with it," Thode explains. "The narrative comes usually during class." During a recent packed session at Saint Vitus, "people were so close together that all I was thinking was The Human Centipede," she explains. "So we walked in a caravan like a human centipede. Sometimes I pretend to have a big cooking pot and we chop people up and just stir it. We stab Trump a lot: 'Stab, lift, destroy!' 'Fuck you' and 'Hail Satan' — that's a good one, too. I don't want anyone to get bored."
Despite all Thode's success, in America, where metal is more of a niche culture — she remembers being shocked to find out that her first U.S. metal festival had just 3,000 attendees, after going to 80,000-person metal festivals in Europe — heavy-metal yoga remains a tough proposition. "There's not a big crowd for it here," she says. "I think the market is very separated. I have requests from all over the place, Kentucky and South Carolina. So I'm trying to make it a goal to bring it to more other people in other areas."
Those other areas include back in Europe, where Thode has taught classes not only at festivals like Wacken but also on the Full Metal Cruise. (She now has a European booking agent.) "What are you doing 11 in the morning at a festival besides being hungover and maybe starting to drink again?" she asks. "I can use that time that people have available with nothing going on."
At Wacken, festival organizers obtained 30 yoga mats for Thode to use for her class, but many more than 30 people showed up. "They were just in the dirt. It was gross and totally disgusting," she remembers.
"I was black basically after the class, covered in mud and dust. [But] we had a blast." Thode started a mosh pit at her Wacken class, as she does frequently in the States as well; other times, she'll ask her students to set up in tree pose — a one-legged balance — before instructing them to knock each other over. ("Everyone is very pleasant with each other," she adds.) The class at the Cobra Club ended with a "block fight": The styrofoam bricks usually used to prevent students from falling were transformed into missiles.
"Often people look at me like, 'Is she for real? Are we really going to do this?'" Thode says happily. "I'm dead serious. I'm doing it. And then everyone is like, 'All right, if she's doing it, I guess we're doing it, too.'"