Yoga’s gone mainstream

Go with the flow: Yoga’s gone mainstream as more people seek fitness for both body and soul

Kesa Emi Nomiyama used to lift weights and walk on a treadmill, but now she takes yoga. Three times a week, she studies the 5,000-year-old Indian discipline, which she says helps her keep focused and in shape.

“I fell in love and I dropped my gym membership,” said the 29-year-old nurse and University of Oregon student. “After the first class I went to, I was sore for a week. I was using muscles I didn’t know I had.”

Nomiyama practices “hot yoga” at Bikram’s Yoga College of India, a newly opened facility in downtown Eugene. The trendy studio, which is part of a worldwide franchise, offers yoga classes in a 104-degree room. Nomiyama likes the temperature, which is supposed to improve elasticity and help release toxins, and she enjoys the combination of physical and mental activities.

Yoga

Most westerners are naive to the religious origin and nature of yoga. Many practitioners who do, merely presume that the exercises are harmless if they are not practiced with a spiritual intent.

Yoga is a series of exercises and postures (asanas) which are advertised as a way to tone up, reduce stress and experience tranquility.

Yoga though is an intrinsic part of Hinduism. Swami Vishnudevananda, well known authority of Yoga, in his book The Complete Illustrated Book of Yoga explains the purpose of Yoga, “It is the duty of each developed man to train his body to the highest degree of perfection so that it may be used to pursue spiritual purposes… the aim of all yoga practice is to achieve truth wherein the individual soul identifies itself with the supreme soul of God.”
- Source: Yoga, a Profile by Watchman Fellowship

Nomiyama is one of an estimated 35 million Americans who will try yoga for the first time this year. Once confined to New Agers with an interest in Eastern spirituality, yoga is catching on among young men, fitness fanatics, aging baby boomers and other unlikely enthusiasts who claim the mind/body practice does everything from heal illness to tighten abs.

Nationally, yoga is a $22.5 billion industry. Advertisements for yoga books, videos, clothes, wellness retreats and even yoga business training classes can be found in the back of magazines such as Yoga Journal, and the phenomenon is now reaching into the mainstream. Border’s Books & Music sells yoga mats, L.L. Bean sells yoga wear, Wal-Mart carries yoga gear and some airlines are even offering in-flight yoga classes.

“Yoga has just grown and grown,” said Donna O’Neil, director of yoga at Four Winds Yoga For Body Mind and Spirit in Eugene.

“You get joyful when you do it because it brings you into that place of spirit … the body gets stronger and the mind heals with it. I’ve seen it in older people and younger people.”

O’Neil, who remembers a day when yoga classes in Eugene were mostly taught at community centers and yoga clothes meant leotards and tights, says yoga has come a long way.

Eugene now boasts at least a half-dozen yoga studios, not to mention all the various health clubs that offer classes in yoga and yoga hybrids such as Body Flow, a combination of yoga, tai chi and pilates.

“Maybe I don’t even know if I would call (these practices) yoga,” O’Neil said. “But it can’t really hurt anyone. … If they realize yoga is not just for weirdos, they might try (other yoga classes).”

Eugene loves yoga

Four Winds, a south Eugene yoga favorite, recently moved from a cramped, second-floor studio into the Tamarack Wellness Center, a spacious alternative healing hub located in the old Easter Seals School. The yoga school has the run of several rooms throughout the building and sells yoga gear in a small pro shop.

New studios also have opened up, including the aforementioned Bikram’s Yoga College of India and the Dharmalaya Yoga Center, which offers daylong yoga retreats and yoga classes in an environmentally sensitive setting.

One style of yoga that has been increasingly popular in Eugene is Anusara yoga. Based on the teachings of John Friend, a former financial analyst from Texas, the practice is one of the fastest growing yoga styles in the world.

A “heart centered” form of yoga, Anusara emphasizes extremely precise biomechanical alignment, said Michele Bulgatz, an instructor who teaches at Four Winds, the University of Oregon and the Dharmalaya Center.

“I think it’s popular because people have such a deep need to have something that matters and to have their attention on something that calls the heart,” Bulgatz said.

“I think people are really hungry for that because there’s so much that feels empty and heartless. We want to feel heart-ful.”

In an effort to bring all the various local yoga factions together, Bulgatz recently organized Lovingkindness Yogathon – a kind of yoga summit – that took place in early October at the St. Mary Catholic Church. The event, which featured Kundalini, Anusara, “vigorous flow” and therapeutic yoga classes, drew about 400 people and raised $3,000 for charity.

Young yoga

The next generation of yoga fanatics can be found at local studios, which are now starting to offer classes such as kids and family yoga, mom and baby yoga and teen yoga.

“There’s yoga for everyone,” said O’Neil, who sees plenty of under-30 yoga enthusiasts in her classes.

The youth in yoga movement is particularly evident at the University of Oregon, where classes in Ashtanga, Kundalini and other forms of Hatha yoga continue to fill up. In the 1998-98 school year, 907 students signed up for yoga classes through the UO’s Physical Activity and Recreation Services department. By last year, that number had climbed to 1,985 students, and administrators say it’s just the beginning.

“It’s exploded,” said Greg Smith, coordinator of the UO’s Mind Body classes. “It’s gone crazy.”

Smith, who co-teaches his own yoga/tennis class with his wife at Black Butte Ranch, sees stress relief as a big reason more and more students are signing up for yoga.

“I look at feedback from all the classes,” he said.

“There are so many that say things, like, `This class has changed my life,’ `This is the most important class I’ve taken on campus,’ `This is a class that helps me cope with other classes.'”

For Tess Treinen, 18, a freshman enrolled in a beginning yoga class at the UO, the discipline is as much about cross-training as it is about relieving tension. She plays basketball at Lane Community College and is looking to improve her flexibility and balance.

“Yoga is a lot harder than I thought it would be,” Treinen said. “I like it a lot. It’s mental and physical.”

On a recent weekday morning, Treinen and about two dozen other beginning yoga students slipped into a high-ceilinged room, removed their shoes and unrolled rubber mats on a parquet floor. Instructor Jean Nelson opened class with a breathing exercise and then led the group through a series of poses.

“Let’s work on the Eagle Pose,” Nelson said, directing the students into a twisted stance that looked a bit like a martial arts pose.

“Bring the knee open now, like your swinging a door,” she added, prompting one student to lose his balance.

The students in this class haven’t quite become yoga converts – they wear ratty T-shirts and pajama bottoms – but the ones in Nelson’s next class, an advanced course in the more physical Ashtanga style of yoga, have clearly caught the bug. They wear lightweight yoga clothes and carry their own mats. You can sense a certain nimbleness in the way they walk.

“I like the way you can feel it throughout your day,” said Baylie Peplow, 22, an undergraduate who’s been taking classes for several years.

“It just makes you more aware of the way your body works.”

Men take to the mat

One of the fastest growing subsets of new yoga enthusiasts is men. According to a recent poll commissioned by Yoga Journal magazine, men account for 23 percent of America’s 15 million yoga devotees.

David Kell, 20, a junior at the UO, is taking his first yoga class this quarter. A former high school football player, he was drawn to the practice as a means of improving his flexibility.

“I wanted to find something different that I could get into,” Kell said. “It’s turned out to be pretty interesting and well worth it. You have to have an open mind. If you’re narrow minded, you probably won’t like it.”

Pro football players and other professional athletes also have discovered yoga. They use it as a means of improving their conditioning and sharpening their focus. Eddie George, a running back for the Dallas Cowboys, credits yoga for keeping him healthy. Baseball player Barry Zito and professional golfer David Duval also swear by the practice.

Michael Franti, a soul/hip-hop artist from the San Francisco Bay Area who leads the group Spearhead, is another famous yoga convert. He said he was intimidated at first by the photos he saw of yogis in tricky poses, but realized he didn’t have to turn his body into a pretzel to practice yoga.

“It’s something that I do every day, when I’m at home or on the road,” said Franti, who studies Anusara yoga.

“It’s something in my life that keeps me energized mentally and keeps my heart open and my body physically prepared to do whatever I need to do.”

Yoga for the masses

For those yoga purists who find the idea of, say, water art yo-tai pilates – a form involving submerged yoga mixed with tai chi and pilates – a bit disturbing, it may be comforting to know that the worst of the yoga fusion craze has not yet infected Eugene.

Disco yoga and punk rock yoga haven’t yet taken hold here, and there is still plenty of good old-fashioned yoga to choose from, including one of the most inimitable yoga classes in town, the “inclusive Hatha yoga” course taught by John Perry.

Five times a week, Perry leads five to 50 yoga students of all ages and abilities through a Kundalini-style class that takes place in a rental warehouse space on Second Avenue. Mats are provided and sometimes class is followed by a potluck. He charges just $3 for his class and for those who can afford to pay more or choose to pay less, that’s OK, too.

“People tell me I should raise my prices, but I live simply and things work out pretty well,” Perry said.

Given Perry’s spartan ways, you might expect him to be critical of some of the trendier yoga classes coming into existence, but he prefers to stay hopeful about the ongoing yoga boom.

“I think it’s good,” he said. “Anything that can build community and a peaceful spirit in people, I think is good.”

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