In our spiritual quest, it is required of us that we develop our body insuch a way that it is no longer a hindrance, but becomes our friend.
— B.K.S. Iyengar
In the old days, there used to be jokes involving pretzels and strange tales of yogis surviving being buried alive for days on end. Today,there are superstar yoga teachers, designer yoga wear, “Om” earrings,yoga for kickboxing, prenatal yoga classes, and books with titles like Yoga for Pets and the People Who Love Them.
Yes, indeed, yoga has come of age. An estimated 18 million Americans currently practice yoga—a threefold increase in less than a decade. Yoga has become to the early 21st century what jogging was to the 1960s and aerobics to the 1970s. It is a staple in trendy fitness clubs alongside Pilates, Nia, and weight training.
It doesn’t hurt that high-profile practitioners like Madonna and Christie Turlington swear by yoga as a means to maintain a calm cente rand get into “the zone.” But Hollywood glitter alone doesn’t suffice to explain America’s newfound passion for this ancient spiritual discipline. A watershed event was the 1990 publication of physician Dean Ornish’s study showing that lifestyle changes, including meditation, yoga, diet, and group support, have the potential to reverse heart disease.
A long-term yoga practitioner, Ornish has since written five best-selling books, introducing millions to the benefits of yoga and a healthy lifestyle. Today, yoga is taught in corporate boardrooms and in prisons, schools,and senior centers. Large corporations like HBO, Forbes, and Nike offer free yoga classes for their employees.
“Every year over the past ten years, it’s been gaining momentum,” says long-time yoga teacher Sue Berkey of The Yoga Room in Fairfield. “It’s like a snowball coming down a hill. People who never would have tried yoga ten years ago are in classes several days a week now. It’s no longer considered this weird, wacky thing from India. People really get that this is a priceless knowledge, a gift from India.”
“I’ve tried different types of exercise, but yoga is a clear winner,” says Ann Clifford, a realtor in Fairfield. “My posture is better after a class, and I feel really renewed. There’s a much greater feeling of openness and freshness.”
Just Another Fitness Fad?
Fitness fads, undeniably, come and go. At first glance, a Power Yoga class in today’s fitness centers may not seem much different from an aerobics class of the ’70s. There’s the movement-enticing music, the sweating, the athletic young kids who effortlessly move in and out of each pose, and the huffing and puffing rest of us.
But if you listen more closely, the music is a kind of Bollywood rock that mixes cool rhythms with soulful Vedic chanting. The inward focus that you are guided into, along with the long relaxation at the end, don’t seem so Jane Fonda-ish either.
Yoga, indeed, is much more than a fitness fad conjured up by yet another Hollywood-star-turned-health-guru. Yoga has its roots in the ancient Vedic culture of India. At its core, it is a spiritual discipline that facilitates the union of body, mind, and spirit as a basis for the full expressionof our human potential. The type of yoga that has gained popularity inthe U.S. is Hatha Yoga, which is part of a much larger body of knowledge.
A basic premise of Hatha Yoga is to encourage the smooth flow of prana, or life energy, throughout the body. Stress, poor lifestyle, shallow breathing, and the unavoidable wear and tear of aging cause the channels of the body to become blocked, cutting off the life force and leaving us with less energy and diminished health. The gentle stretches and deep breathing of yoga massage the muscles and internal organs, and facilitate the flow of prana through the body’s myriad channels. According to practitioners, as a result you feel and look younger and healthier, experience increased vitality, develop a stronger immune system, and are better able to cope with stress.
“Yoga addresses every aspect of the body. It doesn’t leave anything out, whereas in many sports you are just doing one thing,” explains Berkey. “Yoga works on strength, flexibility, and balance. It works not just on the level of the body, but on the level of the mind, emotions, and spirit as well. It gives people something deeper, something that answers the longing of their soul.”
From Pretzel to Practical
Hatha Yoga was first introduced in the U.S. almost a century ago. But it is contemporary yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar who really made yoga palatable to flexibility-challenged Westerners. He showed how using props like pillows and chairs can enable the body to reach and stretch in ways it otherwise could not and stay in poses for longer periods of time. From an art mastered only by the athletic few, Iyengar turned yoga into a practical, enjoyable method for increasing physical fitness, mental clarity, and emotional stability.
Types of Yoga
With the growing popularity of yoga has come a proliferation of “yoga styles” that can be confusing to navigate. There are vigorous, aerobic forms of yoga like Power Yoga, Jivamukti Yoga, White Lotus Yoga, and Ashtanga Yoga; so-called Vinyasa-style practices, in which one pose flows into another. There is “hot yoga,” a form of yoga developed by Bikram Choudhury, which is practiced in a room heated up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit to facilitate the removal of toxins from the body. There are calming, restorative forms of yoga, like Yin Yoga and Svaroopa Yoga, inwhich poses are held for long periods of time to promote healing and deepenthe inner experience. Then there are styles that fall in between, like Iyengar, Anusara, and Kripalu Yoga, which are characterized by their attention to detail, and in which a focus on the subtleties of each posture is used to create greater body awareness and guide attention inward. There are also numerous types of yoga linked to the teachings of spiritual teachers, including Integral yoga and Kundalini yoga, in which yoga typically is just one of a range of spiritual practices offered.
Yoga’s increasing popularity is not just among the fitness minded. Nationwide, interest is growing in yoga as a therapeutic modality, and yoga therapy is becoming increasingly accepted in medical and wellness centers across the country. The first symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research, to be held in January 2007 in Los Angeles, was sold out six months beforehand, with more than 800 registrants. The website of the International Association of Yoga Therapists references more than a thousand studies on the effects of yoga. Yoga has proven helpful in the management of numerous health conditions, including chronic pain, arthritis, back and neck pain, headaches, osteoporosis, depression, insomnia, asthma, fibromyalgia, PMS and menopause, digestive disorders, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and weight concerns.
A basic tenet of yoga therapy is that healing happens through connection with the deepest part of who we are. Yoga therapists typically design a specific yoga program to a client’s skill level and to guide him or her into a deeper experience of the subtleties of each pose, linking movement to deep rhythmic breathing. The goal is to give students the tools they need to feel connected to their own healing process.
With yoga’s growing popularity comes pros and cons. Many experienced teachers fear that the flood of new teachers with little training might turn yoga into a mere physical-fitness tool and obscure the spiritual benefits of yoga. Others feel that yoga is simply evolving to meet different cultural needs.
“Many long-term teachers feel that yoga has become like a style, a fashion statement,” says Iyengar teacher Nancy Footner of IowaCity’s Friendship Studio. “But that’s America—fashion trends come and go. But there are enough serious and qualified teachers with a deep personal experience of yoga to carry on the tradition. Yoga has been around for a long time, and it will continue to be with us.”
Tips on Finding a Teacher
Yoga postures can be demanding and, if not performed precisely and correctly, may cause injury. There are no legally mandated national certification or licensing standards for yoga teachers, and long-term yoga teachers voice concern that poorly trained teachers may not have the ability to safely supervise large classes. Particularly if you a condition that requires knowledge of the body, like back pain or arthritis, you want to look for a teacher with substantial training. Your best bet is to go with teachers who have a long-term solid yoga practice themselves or who have taken a 200-hour yoga teacher training course from a school recognized by the Yoga Alliance, which ensures that they have basic training in anatomy and know how to assist you in the proper alignment of the postures.
Eva Norlyk-Herriott, Ph.D., LMT, is a licensed massage therapist with advanced training in cranio-sacral work and Thai massage. Visit YogaForAllSeasons.com.