Yoga: Where old meets new

The practice has been around for a lot longer than spandex and colorful mats. Yet Columbians find joy in both the spiritual and the commercial forms of yoga
Friday, September 14, 2007 | 1:44 p.m. CDT; updated 6:26 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Students at Elm Street Yoga twist their legs into the eagle pose as they balance against the wall on Tuesday September 11, 2007.

Five thousand years ago, a league of nomadic people landed in northwest India, forming the Indus Valley Civilization. Walls 70 feet thick and 25 feet high cast shadows over the two major cities of this early urban society. These carefully laid out cities, Mohenjo-daro and Harappa, were home to more than 80,000 people and covered more than 800,000 square miles.


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Between 1921 and 1932, two archaeologists, M.S. Vats and John Marshall, unearthed the Indus Valley Civilization, discovering a system of roads, bathing pools, clay bricks, toys and toilets left behind by this ancient and mysterious society.

They also found hundreds of wooden seals, depicting Brahmanic gods and bearing cryptic inscriptions. One in particular, seal No. 420, shows a squatted figure resting on bent knees and pointed toes, the heels and soles of his feet pressed together. The image attracted the attention of a small group of scholars who suspected the position to be the Mulabandhasana asana, an extremely demanding yogic pose.

No. 420 sparked new speculation: Did the people of the Indus Valley Civilization practice yoga more than two and a half thousand years before the Hindu sage Patanjali wrote the 196 Sanskrit mantras that constitute the Yoga Sutras?

Often referred to as the father of yoga, Patanjali defined the practice as “the stilling of the fluctuations of the mind,” yielding “a perfect firmness of the body, steadiness of intelligence and benevolence of spirit.”

When Patanjali wrote those words, he could not possibly have envisioned fuchsia-dyed sponge mats shoved under spandexed legs and pedicured toes in strip-mall studios across America. Today yoga is a nearly $3 billion-a-year industry, according to a study sponsored by Yoga Journal, spawning a ravenous consumer subculture that feeds on classes, equipment, books, DVDs, conferences and clothing lines.

Yoga Journal, the leading industry publication and promoter, also estimates that 16.5 million people practice yoga in the United States every week. Dayna Macy, the journal’s communications director, says most of those practitioners are upper-middle-class, college-educated women in their mid-30s.

“She earns a lot of money,” Macy says, “and she’s very educated.”

And she’s got lots of friends.

Macy says the Yoga Journal’s subscription base has tripled to more than 360,000 in the past few years.

Advertising revenues have increased accordingly, up 8 percent in the last five years, and the advertisers no longer appeal only to a counterculture market. Mainstream companies, such as Johnson & Johnson, Ford Motor Co., Kellogg’s, Kraft and Toyota, have begun advertising in the journal, which was founded in 1975 for yoga’s then-hippie subculture.

“If they’re coming into the magazine, it’s because of the demographic,” Macy says. “Yoga has become very big with affluent practitioners. The numbers are going up for a reason.”

But how many of them are practicing yoga as Patanjali defined it, as a foundation for a way of life in which salvation can be attained through disciplined, unselfish activity?

In Columbia, there are no fewer than 66 yoga classes offered during any given week, taught by men and women who have at least a passing knowledge of yoga as a path to spiritual growth.

Some, like Linda Lutz, owner of Elm Street Yoga, sniff at the trendiness of today’s studios, where customers can shop for the yoga of their choice.

“That’s that ‘facial yoga,’ (and) ‘yoga for abs,’” says Lutz, who believes in what she calls the moral and ethical base of yoga. “But we can’t judge as moral and ethical people; I shouldn’t judge those people for going to facial yoga. Who knows, it may be the thing that helps sustain the moral and ethical body.”

The word yoga is derived from the Sanskrit “yujir,” meaning to unite or connect. The many branches of yoga in the Hindu philosophy —the Ashtanga Yoga of Patanjali’s sutras; Bhakti Yoga, the yoga of devotion; Karma Yoga, the yoga of work; Jnarna Yoga, the yoga of knowledge; and Hatha Yoga, the yoga of movement, breath and meditation — have a common purpose: union with God.

Patanjali’s 196 aphorisms, the sutras, unfold as a blueprint for moral life. The eight limbs explain the principles of ethical living, such as nonviolence, truthfulness and absence of greed, as well as the techniques of breathing, posture, concentration and meditation that lead to an enlightened state of self-actualization or hyperconsciousness.

Yoga was introduced to the United States by Paramahansa Yogananda, a swami, or high clergy, of the Hindu religion. In the 1920s, Yogananda toured the country, lecturing on the science of yoga and meditation. But it wasn’t until the publication of his “Autobiography of a Yogi” in 1946 that the ideas of the Yoga Sutras were readily accessible in the West. Until a wave of Indian teachers, led by B.K.S. Iyengar, arrived in the United States in the 1960s, Americans viewed yoga as an Eastern philosophy. The free-spirited counterculture emerging at the time helped advance the practice even more as it was gradually simplified, stripping away the ancient Hindu traditions at its core.

By the 1990s, yoga had become part of America’s increasing obsession with good health. Yoga entered gyms and health clubs. Studios dedicated to the practice began popping up on what seemed like every corner in America, right above the local Starbucks. In the U.S., yoga lacks the spiritual connection in many studios. Many classes focus purely on the physical objectives of yoga instead.

Edwin Bryant, an associate professor of religion at Rutgers University who teaches the Yoga Sutras, says the idea that yoga is a series of poses, or asanas, is a typical American exploitation of a sacred pursuit.

“It’s a reflection of American consumer and market-oriented superficiality,” Bryant says. “Yoga means meditation. Yoga has come to mean asana only in the modern West.”

Through the doors of the MU Student Recreation Complex, a handful of students pass by the thumping bass and television-smattered Jungle Gym and venture up the stairs to the TigerX studios for a yoga class. Participation is on the rise, according to TigerX coordinator Angela Eastham. In any given week, 21 types of yoga classes, including pilates-infused “Piloga” to the newly added Vinyasa Power Yoga, attract hundreds of TigerX passholders.

The yoga instructors are mostly students, such as MU graduate student Erika Lynn Breedlove, who was certified as an instructor last spring.

The TigerX five-week yoga training regimen branches off from a national certification program, YogaFit, aimed at health clubs. TigerX staff are certified in YogaFit and utilize the program’s materials and principles.

YogaFit is the brainchild of Beth Shaw, who eliminated the Sanskrit names of the postures, as well as the oming and chanting associated with traditional yoga to make the practice user-friendly, according to YogaFit’s Web site. Soon came the clothing line, the TV show and innovation in the classroom, such as “YogaButt” and “YogaCycle.”

Though stripped of the spiritual tradition, YogaFit has taken hold in America because of its physical benefits. Studies have been conducted by a variety of organizations, such as the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Research Council for Complementary Medicine in London. Preliminary studies have suggested that yoga can reduce symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, diabetes, migraines and depression. Although there is no conclusive evidence of yoga’s health benefits, other studies show that yoga may decrease anxiety as the movements and meditation increase levels of the neurotransmitters g-aminobutyrate and dopamine in the brain.

Breedlove says TigerX’s yoga-instructor training does incorporate some of yoga’s rich history. However, that training doesn’t necessarily make it into the classes.

“I would not classify anything of what we do as spiritual,” Breedlove says. “Our relaxation components are something that’s very loosely guided, rather than being a spiritually-focused meditation. That’s probably one thing that makes TigerX classes stand out among studios around town, as those are often more spiritual.”

One of those studios was the dream of Ken McRae and his wife, Kathleen.

Ken McRae spent five years teaching at a Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass., which can house 400 students and instructors. He has a grander vision for yoga than the fluorescent glow of the MU rec complex studios.

“I sold my home and all my possessions and lived there on staff,” McRae recalls. “You volunteered your time, and they offered you food, accommodation and health care.”

After leaving Kripalu, the McRaes traveled the world and ran a yoga studio in Virginia before returning to Ken’s native Canada. Five years ago, they came to Columbia to teach, and in December of 2006, they opened alleyCat Yoga, tucked away behind the landmark The Tiger hotel downtown.

The interior of alleyCat is a testament to McRae’s vision. The dimmed lights, exposed brick, softly whirring ceiling fans and walls soaked in maize, purple, sage and spots of red don’t fit the commercialized mold of most yoga studios. The vibe at alleyCat is one of deep relaxation. The room is hushed except for the chanting of the om that concludes the class.

McRae says his classes don’t emphasize yoga’s spiritual traditions, although he estimates about 20 percent of his students come for a spiritual experience. Most come to relax.

“Yoga works every time,” McRae says. “All you have to do is show up.”

Diane la Mar says it was McRae’s personal style of instruction that drew her to alleyCat, with an emphasis on mindfulness and individuality, echoing the tenants of the Kripalu style.

“Something about the way he teaches really increases my sense of self-acceptance,” la Mar says.

Most studios in the United States practice Iyengar yoga. Unlike the Kripalu branch, which encourages finding one’s own version of the asanas, Iyengar stresses the technique and fluidity of the poses. It incorporates a series of props, including blocks, ropes, cushions and belts, designed to improve each posture.

Born in 1918 in the poor village of Belur, Karnataka, India, B.K.S. Iyengar suffered tuberculosis, typhoid and malaria as a child. Yoga become his respite. In 1966, Iyengar published “Light on Yoga,” which has been translated into 18 languages, making Iyengar’s approach to yoga one of the most widely studied in the world.

Elm Street Yoga follows the Iyengar tradition. Instructor Linda Lutz’s weekly classes draw a variety of students. On a recent Wednesday evening, two men and nine women, all in T-shirts and sweats, quietly chose Iyengar props from the front of the room and assumed the child’s pose, a resting position, waiting for the class to begin.

Lutz, a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, has watched yoga surge in popularity in the U.S. since the 1960s. She has had her own studio in Columbia for nine years and is committed to the Iyengar practice.

“I initially chose it because I found it challenging for me personally,” says Lutz, who has a doctoral degree in marine biology. “It’s fairly scientific. We have to understand muscle movement. Yoga is about alignment, and we have to start with physical body alignment.”

At alleyCat, the instructors quietly move through the poses while students follow their lead. Lutz takes a more active approach, coaching her students through each posture. A large, south-facing wall with ropes looped through meticulously aligned metal hooks hints at the Iyengar emphasis on correcting postures.

Most of Lutz’s students come to Elm Street as part of a physical healing process. Not surprising, since Lutz’s first job in Columbia was teaching yoga for rehabilitation at Boone Hospital Center. But, she says, her students tend to evolve in their practice to find something closer to yoga’s deeper purpose.

“Eventually, everyone attends for a spiritual reason,” she says. “It just depends on what you call spiritual.”

Yoga practitioners say that for all its emphasis on spirituality, yoga should not be mistaken for a religion. It is considered a branch of Hindu philosophy, but it is not the Hindu faith.

Bryant says yoga as meditation in the Hindu tradition takes on “different flavors in different sects.” The American model has just stretched a little too far from Patanjali’s original sutras, he says.

“As long as there are teachers still representing the authentic systems,” Bryant says, “then there is still hope.”

Minutes outside the hum of downtown Columbia, that hope lives in the shrine of a Hindu temple. An open room, pictures of the Hindu devas, or gods, and a quiet that saturates every corner set the scene of the Shanthi Mandir’s Saturday afternoon yoga class.

“There’s a presence there,” instructor Kate Walker says. “You feel a reverence to begin with.”

A handful of Indian women and some of Walker’s veteran students rotate through the asanas, breathing in the afternoon air of the shrine.

Yoga for the Hindu woman is immediately spiritual in the shrine, Walker says. It is where their gods are; as they breathe through the poses, they are namaste, bowing down.

Walker has been teaching yoga in Columbia since 1974. She began her training when she was 19, studying in both India and America. This spring, Walker agreed to teach a few classes for the temple. Her Saturdays at Shanthi Mandir have brought the Hindu yoga tradition to mid-Missouri, and she’s determined to turn the practice back to its roots in the East.

“I was always fascinated with philosophy and religion, understanding religion, ever since I was 5 years old,” Walker says. “I also really loved dance. I wondered which direction would I go. I chose both.”

The immersion in Hindu culture creates a much greater understanding of yoga for Walker and many of her Hindu students. It is a smaller part of a much larger meditative lifestyle.

“The mind is a busy marketplace,” Walker says.

Walker’s class begins by focusing the mind, which spins into meditation, meant to reduce thoughts to a mere hum that falls to the background.

For Visala Palaniappan, yoga has always had a role in her life. Palaniappan left India in 1983 and has studied with Walker since she began teaching at Shanthi Mandir.

In India, unlike here, yoga pervades much of the culture. Memories of yoga practiced in the halls of the temple are still fresh to Palaniappan, she says, even though the constant exposure didn’t spark her interest when she was young.

Walker says many Hindu students learned yoga poses and stretching as schoolchildren. For many Indians, she says, that is the extent of it. Yoga in India is often seen as something reserved for someone much older, a deep, spiritual practice that many younger Hindus shy away from.

It’s an interesting contrast to the American scene.

Walker takes no more than 15 students, some in the traditional salwar kameej and others in sweats. They face the devas, ready for a spiritual 90 minutes of intimate meditation, choosing the yoga of original tradition.

“I don’t talk about the spirituality, but they discover it,” Walker says. “The Hindu spirituality is something that they breathe in and breathe out every second because that’s how they’re raised.”

Walker has maintained her philosophy throughout her 35 years of teaching. She starts each class standing. She centers the students, moving them forward onto the balls of their feet from their heels, silencing the chatter of the day’s events from their minds.

“I want them to feel the ground beneath their feet,” Walker says. “I’m not going to teach my students to be a pretzel. I’ve seen where people just put people in postures. ... I want them to feel their bodies.”

Yoga in the shrine isn’t about intricately engineered props or perfect postures. Walker wants the students to feel their bodies and their breath in a meditative state.

Although new to the practice, Palaniappan says she is discovering herself through yoga. The physical work, the asanas, is merely the vehicle to the quiet peace of meditation.

“From my perspective,” she says, “the goal of yoga is spirituality.”

Walker says it will always be a struggle in America to practice a yoga true to its traditions of meditation. This century has spawned a new breed of yoga, a commercially-driven evolution that has merged with America’s consumer culture. There will always be crammed schedules, lunch dates and car pools that don’t quite align with the Hindu traditions of a yoga geared for meditation.

Yet more than 8,000 miles from its traditional beginnings, yoga’s spiritual roots have not been obliterated. Echoes of tradition resonate in a downtown alley and behind a plate-glass facade off Elm Street. And every Saturday in the shrine of a temple, the hope of the faithful endures.

“The West has a way of taking things and turning them into other things,” Walker says. “I do think that people have to start somewhere.”

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