Yoga promises students physical, spiritual gains

Since coming to Duke, senior Franklin Winokur has regularly participated in what he describes as one of the most demanding workouts he has ever undertaken. Senior Deirdre Hess, on the other hand, has found an exercise routine that allows her to concentrate on de-stressing.

These two students are describing the same activity: yoga.

Members of the Duke community can easily reap the physical and emotional benefits of an ancient form of exercise by participating in a variety of yoga classes: traditional hatha yoga, yoga and pilates and yogaflow, just to name a few. Lisa Jindra, Duke’s program coordinator for group fitness classes, said a yoga and tai chi mix may be added to the list next semester.


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

Yoga stems from the Hindu belief that knowledge, action, devotion and self-control are pathways to a higher consciousness. The counterculture of the 1960s brought the practice into vogue in America, and Madonna made it even more prevalent when she credited ashtanga yoga for her ultra-toned arms and lean look in the 1990s. Since then, popular culture has largely disassociated yoga from its non-physical benefits.

While it is evident that yoga is a common practice among health-conscious members of the Duke community, Jindra stressed that it is still a fairly new fitness trend. “We only added yoga to the recreational fitness schedule four to five years ago,” she said.

Since then, the demand for yoga has only increased, and Duke has responded with half-credit physical education classes, walk-in group fitness classes and even a full-credit course that allows students to learn both the practice and ideology behind kundalini yoga.

“We offer three sections of yoga [in the physical education department], and they’re always full,” said Michael Forbes, director of intramurals, sports clubs and recreation. In addition, some form of yoga class is available either on East or West Campus daily.

Winokur decided to test out one of these walk-in yoga classes during his freshman year. Although he was a tri-varsity athlete in high school, he opted out of organized sports when he arrived at Duke. He still runs and lifts weights on a regular basis, but he looked to yoga for some variation to his physical regimen.

“Yoga makes more sense than some traditional exercise, like weightlifting,” Winokur said. “In yoga, you can work on strength, flexibility and cardiovascular endurance simultaneously.”

Senior Maureen Clair also started practicing yoga through a group fitness class. She has now incorporated ashtanga yoga, which focuses on breathing throughout a series of poses, into her regular schedule.

“I do yoga for spiritual development,” Clair said. “The bonus is that it strengthens muscle and improves posture. But yoga is not for appearance. It gives me a quiet space to breathe.”

Joanna Spector, a yoga instructor with the physical education department, stresses both the quiet space and breathing quite literally. Her class begins with participants lying still on the floor and concentrating on deep breathing. “It’s not about perfection. It’s about inner peace. Be in the present,” she urges gently throughout the class.

Spector also tests the physical limitations of her students at times. In a class filled with varsity athletes, very few could match Spector in holding a push-up position only one inch from the floor or in balancing in a spider-like pose. Yet, at the end of the session, Spector always returns to deep breathing, leading the class in the affirming recitation, “I am happy.”

While the spiritual benefits are what draw many individuals to yoga, they are also responsible for keeping some away. Junior Gloria Lee said she is intrigued by yoga but at the same time apprehensive about it.

“I feel that it would be disrespectful for me to participate in yoga since I would be doing it only out of practice and not understanding,” she said. “I’m uncomfortable with making something ritualistic that shouldn’t be.”

As a Christian, fully involving herself in true yoga would conflict with her personal faith, she said. She ventured that she was more likely to try a practice like pilates, which was designed purely for physical benefits, as a way to build strength and flexibility.

Still, yoga has proven to be a practice that draws a diverse following, though classes at Duke tend to be disproportionately comprised of women.

“Sometimes it is intimidating to participate in yoga classes because the ratio is about 70 percent women to 30 percent men,” Winokur said. “On the plus side, guys can definitely meet girls. On the downside, some guys are worried about what their friends or strangers might think. But that mentality is just something that guys have to overcome themselves.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
The Chronicle, USA
Oct. 27, 2004
Angela Munasque

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday October 29, 2004.
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