Pacific NW Cover Story
Yoga poses solutions in our stressed-out, over-the-top world
Yoga — with its Indian roots and thousands of years of history — now seems nearly as assimilated into U.S. culture as pizza, and Seattle ranks among the top yoga cities per capita. Practitioners say what draws them is the benefits for their minds, as well as bodies.
Janell Hartman walked out of her first yoga class 10 years ago. She was used to pushing herself running and lifting weights, and yoga seemed way too easy.
When the teacher told her students to sit with legs out straight and reach for their toes, Hartman stood up and left. She figured she could stretch on her own.
Yet here Hartman is now, a yoga teacher herself, weaving among her students in a candlelit room on Capitol Hill, gently pushing one's back, readjusting another's leg.
Guilt brought her back to a second class after she ran into the teacher, who urged her to give yoga another try. But before long, Hartman kept going because yoga made her feel so good. Not physically so much. Emotionally.
Yoga must soothe something that ails us. How else to explain how popular it's become? Sure, it's a form of exercise, but there are faster, cheaper ways to get fit.
Yoga — with its Indian roots and thousands of years of history — now seems nearly as assimilated into U.S. culture as pizza. Nationwide, an estimated 15.8 million people practice it. Seattle ranks among the top yoga cities. In King County, one in seven adults say they've done yoga or Pilates at least once in the past year. That's not as many as camp or jog, but more than say they ski, snowboard or sail. For women — by far yoga's biggest clientele — it's one in five.
Just 15 years ago, most people around here weren't quite sure what yoga was, much less what to make of it. Now just about every neighborhood boasts at least one yoga studio. It's hard to find a health club that doesn't offer yoga classes.
And the variety of styles is dizzying: the "hot" yoga done in 100-plus degree rooms, the strenuous Ashtanga, the alignment-focused Iyengar. There are yoga classes for pregnant women and prisoners, for toddlers, scientists and barbers. There's even a class for dog owners and their pets. Called Doga, it's taught at the Seattle Humane Society in Bellevue on a black, plastic floor.
Yoga's still largely a middle- and upper-class pursuit. With classes that cost roughly $5 to $16 each, that tends to limit who shows up. And no longer does every new yoga class fill to the brim.
Still, yoga has never been more mainstream. Or such big business — about $5.7 billion a year, according to Yoga Journal. For awhile, Gucci sold a $600 yoga mat. Nowadays, the average shopper can pick up one for $18.99 along with toothpaste and shampoo at the local Bartell's.
So what's so great about spending a few hours a week stretching and straining on a thin piece of plastic, cheap or expensive? It's easy to view yoga as the latest fitness craze for those of us who don't want to run marathons or climb mountains. Or dismiss it as a pastime for thin, blonde women seeking a sexy "yoga butt."
Yet when yoga believers like Janell Hartman talk about what they gain from yoga, they could just as easily be talking about church. It centers them. Makes them calmer. Yoga, they say, makes them better people.
Even no-nonsense tax officials recently agreed that yoga is more than good ol' American calisthenics with an Eastern twist — that yes, it stretches muscles, but also minds.
Shortly after 9 on a Saturday morning, yoga teacher Tracy Hodgeman asks students what they'd like to work on. Their answers are all physical: Neck and shoulders. Lower back. Quads.
We start on the floor, sitting still for a moment before launching into the asanas, a Sanskrit word generally understood in the U.S. to mean yoga postures. Hodgeman has dimmed the lights, and faces students away from the mirrors in this room, which doubles as an aerobics studio at Ballard Health Club. She wants to keep our focus inward. A CD of medieval chants muffles the clink of weights and whir of exercise machines we can see through the windows.
We lie on our backs to stretch our shoulders and necks with what Hodgeman calls "the seaweed pose" because we sweep one arm, then the other, across our bodies and out to the side like a piece of kelp moving in the current. We gradually work our way to our knees, then our feet, twisting and stretching as we go. Hodgeman challenges us — a beginning/intermediate group — with poses such as the "plank," in which we hold our bodies straight as a board while touching the ground with only our forearms and our toes. She also works in some back arches to loosen up our spines.
Every so often, she lets us rest in "child's pose," where we sit back on our heels and stretch our arms way out in front, palms on the floor. And we breathe — inhaling with one motion, exhaling the next.
It is challenging and rejuvenating at the same time. By the end, my body feels as loose and relaxed as if I'd had a massage.
These body benefits are what draw most Americans to yoga at first. That's different from, say, India, where mentioning that you do yoga could as easily mean you're praying or doing good deeds as stretching on a mat. The reality here is that we've glommed onto what's known as physical or "hatha" yoga.
Yoga teachers accept that. It's not a problem, it's a place to begin. They don't want to scare people off by going too deep into yoga's spiritual side too soon.
If she put out a flyer inviting students to sit at the feet of a guru and reach the divine, she probably wouldn't get many takers, says Denise Benitez, teacher and owner of Seattle Yoga Arts on Capitol Hill, one of the oldest yoga studios in the city. So she promotes it as a moving meditation, the way to a steadier mind.
"It's like giving them wheat germ along with the hot fudge sundae," she says.
It's a matter of debate just how religious yoga is. While not strictly Hinduism, it's definitely spiritual, to a greater or lesser degree depending on the class and the student. And local teachers say it's compatible with any religion, or lack thereof. That's perhaps what makes yoga big in Seattle, too, since we're near the bottom of the nation when it comes to churchgoing. Yoga may also appeal to our sense of efficiency: a workout and a spiritual lesson together in about an hour.
The growth of yoga may now come in its health benefits. Yoga teachers say they're seeing more students whose doctors tell them to try yoga to help ease back pain or other maladies, saying it won't hurt and may help.
"What yoga really is," says teacher Autumn Needles, "is just the ability to stop and be aware of what's happening to you in that moment instead of allowing yourself to be distracted and follow your thoughts in a number of different directions.
"People can take what they need from it."
So when Hodgeman works our backs and quads and shoulders, that's not what she talks about. She tells us to relax our eyeballs. Suggests we use our breath like fingers to massage our internal organs.
A big difference between yoga and exercise, she says later, is obvious as we emerge from class into the club outside. As people walk on the StairMaster, they occupy their minds by reading books or watching TV.
Yoga, in contrast, requires full concentration. The reason for tricky yoga poses, she says, is to help our minds stay in the present. Otherwise, what's the value of being able to put your leg behind your ear? As far as philosophy goes, however, Hodgeman keeps this class light. She uses only a couple of Sanskrit words, and doesn't lead any chants. That's pretty common in yoga classes in gyms — some prohibit even a single, sonorous, collective Ommmmmmmmmm.
That's one reason yoga recently ended up with a tax problem.
UNDER WASHINGTON state law, instructional activities such as tennis lessons aren't subject to sales tax. But physical-fitness classes are.
As more and more yoga classes started to strip out chanting and Sanskrit, and hybrid classes such as Yoga Abs emerged, the state Department of Revenue questioned what yoga really is these days.
That sent unyogalike ripples of distress through the yoga community, especially after the department ordered a Federal Way studio to pay three years' back taxes. Officials called a hearing to air the issues.
Studio owners circulated petitions to their students. Some organized strategy sessions where they worked on a definition of yoga that all could support, regardless of their style.
The purpose of yoga, they agreed, is to study the mind. The body is just a vehicle to accomplish that.
The day of the hearing, about 70 people — mostly yoga teachers — filed into a large auditorium in Burien that, for a government building, looked strangely like a church with long bench seats upholstered in plush red fabric. The crowd was ready for battle. A calm battle, of course, given that these women make a living teaching others how to maintain composure in the face of adversity.
The official in charge, Jay Jetter, joked about the challenge the audience faced: Explaining an Eastern philosophy in Western terms to . . . tax officials.
Make that: Explain the Americanized version of an ancient practice that's become so popular that pop stars sing about it, and advertisers use it to sell breath mints and underwear.
Explain, in other words, how yoga has held onto its soul.
That's exactly what the audience came prepared to do. Then Jetter made an announcement that signaled they'd won before the hearing really even started.
Based on his research, including long conversations he had with yoga teachers, students and studio owners, Jetter announced that the department already decided against taxing classes taught at yoga studios. It will tax classes in gyms and health clubs, but that's largely a moot point since club members already pay taxes as part of their membership dues. (Yoga teachers in gyms can avoid taxes, too, if they demonstrate their primary purpose is instruction.)
Some people testified anyway, but most simply thanked Jetter, and he thanked them:
"You've educated me — and the rest of the department."
What they managed to convey was what some worried state officials might never understand. For Hartman, it's that yoga allowed her to feel, for the first time, she was inside her body looking out rather than perched outside somewhere, looking in. She realized how "not to interpret my identity by how I thought I was being perceived."
For her husband, Ingo Richter, it comes down to happiness. A strapping soccer player and bicyclist, no one would pick him out of a crowd as a yoga enthusiast. But he gushes that yoga has made him not only a better cyclist and soccer player but a better person.
Tracy Weber, a former Microsoft manager, also seems like an unlikely yogini (Sanskrit for a female yoga student). If yoga had been billed as meditation or philosophy, she says she never would have tried it. Back pain from a car accident led her to her first class. While it didn't do her back any good, it relieved so much stress that she kept going anyway. (And eventually found a class that helped her back and her stress.)
At Microsoft, she says, the culture includes a lot of table-pounding. After a few years of yoga, she no longer felt the need to pound. It's as if she now rides through life in a steamship rather than a rowboat. The waves are just as high, but the ride has fewer ups and downs.
Weber was one of the people the Department of Revenue talked with about the yoga tax because she's taught both yoga and aerobics. She told tax officials she saw a big difference between the two. In all the time she taught aerobics, she says, not a single student ever sought her out after class to tell her how aerobics changed her life. In yoga, she says, that happens all the time.
At the end of Hodgeman's class, we lie on the floor for savasana, the corpse pose. Savasana is part of nearly all yoga classes, a time to keep the mind quiet, relax deeply.
Yoga teachers sometimes use these minutes to talk a little about yoga philosophy, or walk from student to student, lifting an arm or leg to help them fully let go. Hodgeman usually reads a poem to help students keep their minds from wandering. When she didn't, she found that two or three students, thinking the important part was over, would get up and leave. So even though it's not a traditional practice, she reads.
No one leaves today. When it's time to go, we roll up the mats and head out through the gym with what club fitness director M.J. Daniels calls "the yoga look." Daniels, who hired Hodgeman as the club's first yoga teacher, says she can always tell who's leaving yoga class by the faraway look in their eyes, "kind of like they're floating off the ground."
"People see that and say, 'Ooh, I want some of that. How do I get in that state?' "
Linda Shaw is a Seattle Times staff writer. Seattle Times researcher Gene Balk contributed to this story. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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