Doing a body good

There is more to yoga than
painful-looking contortions.
Sunday, February 27, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:01 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Ken McRae and Kathleen Knipp had the perfect jobs.

They were doing what they loved, had a peace of mind and a feeling of wholeness.

All that changed when the unthinkable happened: They started getting paid.

McRae and Knipp, directors of alleyCat Yoga, the new yoga center off Cherry Street in downtown Columbia, have life experiences that most Americans can’t relate to. They came to Columbia because of the peaceful feeling they got when visiting. When they realized Columbia lacked a yoga studio, they took action and opened one in early January.

Sitting in the couple’s studio, a sense of well-being and calm takes over the body. The mellow colors, warm lighting and relaxing music wash over you.

The two work together to explain how they got into practicing yoga.

McRae is a former computer systems designer and Knipp a former preschool teacher who also did research on adolescent substance abuse. They met in 1995 at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lennox, Mass.

McRae had been a Kripalu instructor since 1991.

Knipp came to the center as part of a three-month retreat during her summer off from teaching. Her experience with yoga was limited when she arrived, she had taken only about a dozen classes, but she had embraced what McRae describes as an insight into the joy and comfort from within the body.

“At the end of three months I just thought, ‘This is what I want to be doing,’” Knipp said. “So, I called my director at home and said, ‘I’m not coming back.’ There was a sense of rightness about it.”

The couple describes the culture at the center as a very rich way to go through life. It was run by a volunteer organization where students of yoga lived in a community that exchanged their services for accommodation and food.

Patrons dedicated most of their time to practicing and talking yoga as well as sharing the experience with others. The yoga community allowed the couple to focus on the benefits without the typical external distractions like work and scheduling.

The climate of the center changed in 1995 when new management came in. A hierarchy developed within the community because of the change and led to McRae and Knipp’s eventual departure.

“They began paying us,” Knipp said with a touch of disgust. “We didn’t really want to be paid because we were very happy with the system of karma yoga, which is service.” Although the couple preferred to live within the volunteer community, the environment had changed and so had the satisfaction with it.

So, the two saved all the money they earned and left the center to travel around the world for seven months. Their trips to India, Thailand, Singapore and across Europe gave them time to decide where to go from there.

After experiencing yoga in its place of origin, India, McRae and Knipp moved to Virginia and opened their first yoga center. They said their travels gave them a broader perspective on the meaning and philosophy of yoga.

When yoga came to the West around the 1920s, American culture adhered mainly to the body-oriented benefits. Toning and stretching are only small parts of the benefits of yoga. It was developed by Hindus as a way to settle the mind during meditation. Nirvana, the release from the Hindu rebirth cycle, is the ultimate goal.

“Yoga is a huge system and the postures are just one piece,” Knipp said. “It’s very important to us to teach people the bigger view.”

The classes Knipp and McRae offer at their studio are focused on settling the mind and teaching the ability to focus on one thought for an extended time. Although more intense, physically challenging classes are available, the couple is adamant about teaching the whole picture.

The center offers classes not just in practicing yoga, but on the Hindu texts from which it originates. Knipp teaches about the text Yoga Sutra, which contains 195 sentences intended to be memorized. Its focus is on the philosophy of yoga. A series on the sacred Hindu text the Bhagavad Gita is also offered.

Knipp says that there are two fears that keep people from beginning yoga: “That they’re going to have to convert [to Hinduism] and shave their heads. And that they’ll have to put their feet behind their heads.”

In reality, experiencing yoga differs greatly from the modern cultural perception. While the postures benefit the body, the breathing exercises decrease stress and anxiety. The resulting relaxation and internal comfort last up to three days.

“People’s lives tend to get really shallow,” Knipp said. “We’re just working and eating and going to school and people want something more.”

People tend to check out of their bodies because the mind has become the dominating tool for life in our society, McRae and Knipp said. Yoga helps students realize the importance of re-integrating the body into the lives of people who are flooded by distractions. Re-establishing that connection with how your body moves and reacts to its environment is a true reality check.

“It’s this feeling of coming home, a feeling of integration and wholeness that happens,” Knipp said. “It’s really about an exploration of the body and the mind, and who cares if you’re really super flexible.”

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