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On Fitness
Yoga For All Reasons
A first festival celebrates a boom 30 years in the making
spacer From the classic, serene poses of local pioneer Marie Svoboda to the flashy contortions of contemporary instructors featured on national magazine covers, yoga has expanded and morphed to serve myriad niches.
OLD-TIMERS REMEMBER how, back in the day, sitting on a throw rug was a luxury. The road to self-discovery was meant to be a spartan, unsexy trip. When Marie Svoboda began teaching yoga here in 1969, hippies represented a healthy portion of her students. Between imparting the meaning behind the stretches and breathing she would bark at the students with what they fondly called "Marie-isms" like, "Don't sit there like a plum!"

Svoboda is believed to be the first person to put yoga under the "Y" in the Seattle Yellow Pages. Eventually, her clientele included opera singers, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a nuclear scientist. But there were never any frills.

Oh, how progress marches on.

This coming weekend, Seattle Center will host the first Northwest Yoga Festival, featuring all kinds of demonstrations, classes and some big-name (at least in the yoga world) instructors. It is the area's inaugural event, which begs the question: What took so long?

Look around; it's yoga, yoga, yoga all the time. Of all the videos and books that flow into this office, easily two-thirds are about some yoga strain, philosophy, target area or gimmick.

Now we have yoga wear and special yoga walls and yoga spritzes and yoga music; yoga for kids and even for infants. There is Yoga for Gardening, Emotional Yoga, Power Yoga, Yoga for Transformation, Yoga for Weight Loss, Healing Yoga for Common Conditions. Then there is Yoga for Longevity, Yoga for Energy and Strength, Yoga for Strong Bones, Yoga for Stress Relief. Take advice from Yoga Home Journal or Living Yoga (taught by a supermodel). As I type this, a news release plops on my desk touting a Yoga style promising to burn 540 calories an hour.

Yoga has even crept onto the covers of all those fitness magazines that feature freakish, airbrushed people. It has nudged alongside other, more familiar teaser headlines that scream Buns! Abs! Pecs! Yoga with an exclamation point! That's not right!

The Yoga Journal's circulation is soaring, and Advertising Age named it "top performer" for the last half of 2002. Its April cover features a striking picture of an instructor contorting like a circus performer. It's a sign of what the body — his body — can do, but it struck me as showing off. Strange for a selfless discipline.

In any case, an estimated 18 million people around the world participate at some level, and perhaps as many as 20,000 Washingtonians do it regularly. A survey of 1,200 U.S. health clubs showed yoga is more popular than aerobics.

Aging baby boomers are at the crest of the wave. Celebrities such as Sting helped spur it by making yoga seem cool, and now it's drawing a younger crowd by promising more of a workout. The yoga market, like almost all thriving markets, is diversifying and segmenting. Americans like to shop.

Still, it's hardly about fads.

Laura Yon-Brooks of Planet Earth Yoga Center uses yoga to help cancer patients at Swedish Medical Center prepare for and recover from invasive treatment. She also teaches weekly classes for people with multiple sclerosis. She does it all quietly. "Some practitioners are hung up on fitting the person to the style," she says. "I try to fit the style to the person."

Up at the Miller Community Center on Capitol Hill, you can find a yoga class attended by stroke victims, people with Parkinson's disease, a woman in a wheelchair who can get down on a mat only with help. Marjo Miller, a 70-year-old with Parkinson's, devised the program with nurse Jane Woodward and administers it with precision, down to having mats laid before class so everyone feels welcome. Participants respond by doing what they can, whether they have to sit in a chair or not.

Other grassroots programs operate in community centers, schools, clinics and small venues all over the region.

For the festival (see for details), organizer Joseph Rodin, a yoga teacher and therapist, tried to find a mix of styles and teachers to accommodate all levels and represent a variety of disciplines. He also is bringing in musical performers. "I tried to set it up so you could sample, go deep or festive."

Attendance cost ranges from $195 to more than $400, depending on the package one chooses.

Svoboda won't be teaching at the festival, but several of her early students are now instructors around town, keeping up the tradition. And at 82, she still moves with the grace of the dancer she once was. Does she still do yoga? Dumb question. "Of course!" she says, as if I were a plum.

Richard Seven is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff reporter.

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