I didn’t start for sports-but for my back, but when I started crosscountry skiing again I noticed a big difference in my body. – Claudia
The Big Eraser-gets rid of moods, fatigue. I have had more energy for hiking and bicycling and I am more in tune physically-a good core for any physical activity. – Travis
I climb and telemark ski. Yoga has improved my stamina and flexibility…I haven’t been back to the gym since I started-it has been that profound-it’s been five years. All systems function at a higher level of flexibility and core strength. – Dan
Climbers, skiers, runners, rowers and even golfers are swearing by the benefits of yoga to their bodies and toward their athletic performance. Historically, yoga has been a means toward enlightenment. Yoga’s primary objective has been to unify body, mind and spirit. So why are so many athletes singing its praises? If the study of yoga is to discover what is “in there,” why does it appeal to athletes wanting to get “out there?”
While the classical poses of yoga date back 5,000 years, yoga’s popularity in the United States is relatively new. In the mid-1950s, 1960s and early 1970s, disenchanted American youth began heading to India and exploring eastern religions epitomized in books such as the Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac. Some of these youth studied with Sri K. Pattabhi Jois, and B.K.S. Iyengar, two preeminent gurus practicing unique styles of yoga, both of whom were students of the Indian yogi, Sri T. Krishnamacharya. The styles developed by Pattabhi Jois (Ashtanga) and Iyengar are two of the most common yoga practices in the U.S. today.
Both Ashtanga and Iyengar Yoga fall under the umbrella term of Hatha Yoga or physical yoga. Through physical poses (asanas), breathing techniques (pranayama) and meditation, many students come to approach the body as the vehicle for unification with the soul. Through daily practice, the body becomes filled with its own life force (prana).
For many, just the mentioning the word “life force” has them walking quickly in the opposite direction, but in looking at the research, the proven health benefits of yoga are great. The website, http://www.abc-of-yoga.com lays out the physiological, psychological and biochemical benefits from a regular yoga practice and it is quite extensive. Everything from stabilizing your autonomic nervous system to increases in cardiovascular efficiency is listed. Athletes we spoke with in Spokane, echoed many of these benefits, such as increased energy and endurance levels; increased stability, balance and strength; and an increased range of motion for joints resulting in less pain.
If yoga is the new “cure-all,” why do many individuals and athletes still dismiss it as a flaky way to exercise? OTM visited the four main yoga studios in Spokane to bring more light onto the subject and to discuss the power of yoga, its impact on athletes and to see what makes each studio unique.
City Yoga – Ashtanga: Intensity and Dedication
The studio space at City Yoga is smaller than most. Brightly painted walls and ceiling-hung tapestries add to the intimacy of the environment. About 16 mats are closely spaced in rows throughout the room. Students move fluidly from one asana to the next, while owner and yogini, Katie Gehn, calmly moves through the studio calling out asana names in Sanskrit and making slight adjustments to her students. Quiet music is heard in the background while the heavy flow of breathing is heard from the class.
Gehn initially started yoga due to back problems. At the time she was on the U.S. Women’s Rowing Team and had been competing at national and international levels for seven years. “When you get to that top level, what differentiates you is very small,” says Gehn, “I started looking into mind/body tools for concentration and the elimination of struggle while competing.”
She was in top physical shape, but her body was all muscle with little flexibility. Yoga allowed her to bring more balance into her body, and being an athlete, the dedication required by Ashtanga appealed to Gehn. “Ashtanga is difficult-it takes discipline and time-it is a very intense form of yoga,” says Gehn.
City Yoga is primarily an Ashtanga studio. Ashtanga yoga consists of three main elements, vinyasa (flow of asana), bandha (breathing) and drishti (your gaze or focus). With vinyasa, there is one asana for each breath. Ashtanga studios are warm. Continuous flow or movement of the body and breath produces heat, allowing blood to circulate freely, purifying internal organs and enhancing one’s immune system. Ashtanga follows a specific sequence of asanas that is standard throughout the world.
Ujjaye breathing is the typical bandha used during vinyasa. With Ujjayi breath or “deep, victorious breath”, air is pulled in slowly in through the nose and through the back of the throat. The sound is similar to that of the ocean. Ideally the length and rhythm of the breath should be consistent throughout the practice. Proper breathing along with dristhi purifies and stabilizes the functioning of the mind.
Besides her downtown studio, Gehn also teaches yoga to the Gonzaga Men’s and Women’s Rowing Teams. Since Gehn began incorporating yoga, athletes at Gonzaga have noticed their bodies becoming “pain-free”. Over the past two years, Gehn has seen an improvement in performance as well. “I have noticed improved coordination and balance. Their bodies move better…I believe that it makes a huge impact on the longevity of athletes and their remaining injury-free-as your body becomes more sports specific-other motions become comprised. Yoga helps to balance out asymmetry in the body.”
FSG Yoga Studio: Power Yoga & Accessibilty
The room is sweaty and hot. A candle is lit in the center of the dimly lit room and mats line either side of the studio facing each other. Similar to Ashtanga, there is a rhythm and flow between asanas, but the overall atmosphere is more casual. Music playing in the background is slightly louder and many students talk quietly with each other during poses. Owner and yogini, Elizabeth McElveen gives brief descriptions to students, almost always providing two to three alternative poses for those at different skill levels. This is Power Yoga.
McElveen approaches her class in a straightforward, casual manner. “Your body will get there-the pose doesn’t have to be perfect,” she says. Toward the end of class, at McElveen’s direction students move into inversions, some use the wall for added stability while others simply “kick-up” in the center of the studio. From there students move into savasana or “corpse pose” for relaxation.
Power Yoga at FSG tends to attract the greatest number of men out of the four studios-many of whom are athletes. “So many of my students are athletes-skiers, runners, climbers,” says McElveen, “for runners yoga is great for opening up hips, hamstrings and the IT band.”
McElveen has been an avid runner her whole life and taught aerobics for years. “I initially thought yoga was a waste of time,” she says. Then she stumbled onto a Power Yoga class and loved it. She decided to give up running for a few years and explore yoga. “My muscles were so tight and I wanted the depth of experiencing my body in a new way,” says McElveen.
FSG was started on a whim-as a way for McElveen to share with her friends her passion for yoga. FSG offers both Ashtanga and Power Yoga classes. “It grew when I wasn’t prepared,” she adds.
Power Yoga is a derivative of Ashtanga. Beryl Bender Birch, an American, was the first to market it differently with the term “Power Yoga.” It has now evolved into a more accessible form. It begins from the same premise of Ashtanga, with emphasis on vinyasa flow or sun salutations, breathing and focus, but the sequence is mixed up differently. It is more open to variation.
McElveen recommends progressing slowly with Power Yoga and Ashtanga. She encourages students to push only to the edge, and to notice irregular breath patterns, a sure sign that a student has gone too far. “You can’t push your body-your body will give you only what it’s got at that time,” she says.
Student athletes at FSG have commented on everything from increased agility and balance to improved endurance levels. “For the athlete, practicing a pressurized breath oxygenates the body-it is good for high altitude climbing, with rock climbing the breath allows you to take time to reflect on each move. The breath zones you right in. It can also help in the prevention of side-aches or cramping for runners,” says McElveen.
Harmony Yoga: An Intelligent Practice
Alison Rubin starts every class with a seated meditation. “This releases tension and allows students to drop into the present moment,” says Rubin, “Students can start their yoga practice with a quiet mind and from a neutral place.” Chanting in Sanskrit is also incorporated in the intermediate and advanced classes. “It honors the roots of the practice, it is very grounding and expanding, the ‘om’ represents unity-the potential to feel union with others and all,” adds Rubin.
Harmony Yoga is based on the teaching of B.K.S. Iyengar. Alison Rubin, owner and yogini, does integrate other teachings, but Iyengar is her focus and the core of her understanding of yoga. While, Iyengar instruction does incorporate some flow between poses, especially during sun salutations, its primary emphasis is on proper alignment and technique, for the prevention of injury and to maximize the benefit of each pose. Classes are tailored to each student’s level of ability, and if necessary props are used to deepen a student’s understanding of a pose.
Rubin refers to Iyengar as an intelligent practice. “Iyengar appeals to students who want to move more slowly and technically. It is a more serious practice. If you are moving too fast you a not always aware of the placement of your body-students work at a deep level to penetrate mind into body,” says Rubin.
Almost all the athletes that come to Rubin’s classes are working with injuries suffered during their sports or hoping to prevent further injuries. Yoga helps to prevent injuries by stretching out muscles, creating strength and stability around the joints and agility through the shoulders, hips, legs and spine.
“With many sports you see tightening of the hip flexers and hip rotaters, hamstrings and quadriceps. In every yoga class you are working all of these areas,” says Rubin, “Yoga is also great for golfing-we do a lot of twisting and shoulder work.”
Iyengar appealed to Rubin for its emphasis on technique. For five years, Rubin studied nothing but Iyengar and she sought out the “greats’ to study under: Patricia Walden, Adile Palkavala, Judy Lassiter and Jon Schumacher. After five years she felt she had a good understanding of the Iyengar method and she began to branch out with other styles. “I felt I knew the rules of safety and alignment, I could now explore other systems and still keep the integrity of the practice,” says Rubin.
Rubin’s style of teaching has tended to attract numerous physical therapists, chiropractors and body-workers, “They like the style that we teach because it is more akin to the type of technical anatomical training they received. I have received nothing but positive reports from them,” says Rubin.
Radha Yoga Center: Cultivating Human Potential
Of the four main yoga studios in town, Radha Yoga Center is the most unique and the most spiritually encompassing. Radha is the only non-profit studio in the city and it is overseen by Swami Radhakrishnananda. Hatha Yoga, Kundalini (the study of opening to one’s own inner wisdom), Sacred Dance and Dream Works courses are offered at the Center.
The design and atmosphere of the studio space is important. The Center aims to create a space for “going within”, it is meant to embody the sacred. The Hatha Yoga studied, utilizes all of the traditional poses but works with each pose symbolically. “We discover the hidden language of the asanas. It is an intuitive questioning on the deeper meaning…the body starts to speak to each individual,” says Swami Radhakrishnananda, “All our work involves symbolism.”
Through chanting, dance and asansa, students are encouraged to stay with their own process and not feel the need to compete. Many of the first-time students come for stretching and to feel better. Most come for flexibility, health and relaxation.
In 1963, German-born Swami Sivananda Radha returned from India and founded the Yasodhara Ashram at Kootenay Lake in British Columbia. Swami Radha wanted an accessible Center within the United States and decided on Spokane. Currently, there are fifteen Radha Centers internationally, with the Spokane Center being one of only three in the United States. Swami Radha often stayed at the Spokane Center and died there in 1995.
Although their approach is gentler than the other studios, one can still move deeply into the asana poses. “The posture is complete when you get to the point of no effort,” says Swami Radhakrishnananda, “…the breath happens naturally when working with asanas.”
In addition to the network of Centers throughout the world, Radha Yoga Centers along with the Yasodhara Ashram publish Swami Radha’s teachings through Timeless Books and through Ascent Magazine, an award-winning journal about yoga and spiritual growth.
Where to Take Yoga:
Blue Lotus Sanctuary // 613 Dollar Street, Coeur d’Alene, ID. (208) 665-1946.
City Yoga // 159 South Lincoln Street, # 151, (509) 869-4121.
Donna’s School of Dance // 11707 East Sprague, (509) 922-1011.
FSG Yoga Studio // 20 West Main Avenue, (509) 218-3903.
Garden Street Yoga // 602 East Garden Steet, Coeur d’Alene, ID. (208) 660-9746.
Global Fitness // 110 West Price Avenue, (509) 467-3488.
Gold’s Gym // 2921 East 57th Avenue, (509) 448- 5800.10101 North Nevada Street, (509) 465-0500.
Harmony Yoga // 1717 West 6th Avenue, (509) 747-4430.
Liberty Lake Athletic Club // 23410 East Mission Avenue, Liberty Lake, (509) 891-2582.
mysore-Ashtanga yoga // 1818 1/2 E. Sprague, (509) 342-4206.
Northpark Racquet & Athletic Club // 8121 North Division Street, (509) 467-5124.
Positive Power Yoga & Pilates Fitness Studio // 9107 North Country Homes Boulevard, (509) 467-9199.
Radha Yoga Center // 406 Coeur d’ Alene Street, (509) 838-3575.
Stroh’s Fitness & Racquet Club // 9233 East Montgomery, (509) 926-6268.
The Spokane Athletic Club // 1002 West Riverside Avenue, (509) 838-8511.
24 Hour Fitness // 603 East Holland Avenue, (509) 467-1500.
718 West Riverside, (509) 747-2500.
5501 South Regal, (509) 448-8442.
116 North Progress, (509) 926-1241.
208 Coeur d’Alene Avenue, Coeur d’ Alene, (208) 667-5010.
UPCOMING YOGA RETREATS AND WORKSHOPS:
Harmony Yoga // 1717 West 6th Avenue, (509) 747-4430, http://www.harmonyoga.com. —- (March 11) Scoliosis Workshop: When: 1 PM – 4 PM. Cost: $40. (April 22) Awakening the Chakras: When: 2 PM – 5 PM. Cost: $40. (March 24-26) Weekend Workshop w/ Janice Vien: When: TBA (10 hours) Cost: $150. (June 9-11) Weekend Workshop w/ Theresa Elliott: When: TBA (10 hours) Cost: $150.
FSG Yoga Studio // 20 West Main Avenue, (509) 218-3903, http://www.fsgstudio.com. (March – April) Ashtanga Intensive: Great intro for beginners. When: 9 AM – 12 Noon (Sundays).Cost: $35 per session.
City Yoga // 159 South Lincoln Street #151, (509) 869-4121, http://www.cityyogaspokane.com. —- (March 7 – April 11) Beginning Meditation Course: When: 7 PM – 8 PM (Tuesdays) Tong Lin Buddhist Breath technique with Beverly Hill begins. Bring a cushion wear comfortable clothing. Cost: $60 in advance, or drop in for $12. Info: (509) 325-5583. (August) City Yoga Teacher Training and Teaching Apprenticeship: When: TBD. 200hr program, graduates will be eligible to apply for their Yoga Alliance Certification. The program will focus on Hatha Yoga, specifically focusing on the Ashtanga Vinyasa system. Local and nationally known faculty members will cover anatomy and physiology, philosophy, Sanskrit, proper alignment, asana instruction, teaching methodology and more.
Radha Yoga Center // 406 South Coeur d’Alene Street, (509) 838-3575, http://www.radha.org. —- (March 11) Elders: Reflecting on Your Life: When: 11 AM – 1 PM. Cost: $12. (March 15 & 22) Introduction to Meditation Practices: When: 5:30 PM – 7 PM. Cost: $16. (April 8) The Heart of Caring: When: 11 AM – 1 PM. Explores what it truly means to care for ourselves and others. Cost: $12.