April 12, 2011

Yoga is for everyone…but only if you lock your knee first

At a Thursday afternoon yoga class at Zen Spot Lifestyle Center and Yoga Studio in Eugene, participants attempted one of yoga’s most ancient poses.

With left legs standing tall, knee slightly bent to support the body and avoid hyper extension, men and women, all different ages, shapes and sizes, slowly lifted their right leg from multicolored yoga mats and pressed their foot into the left thigh or calve. Gaining their balance, they completed the pose by joining their palms together in the center of their chests in prayer.

For a moment the room was temporarily unified, but soon the posture started to change—every member of the class morphing it into something different, doing as the instructor suggested, “making it their own.”

Some chose to reach their arms above their heads, bringing their gaze to follow. Others reached their hand behind their back, holding opposite elbows. The rest kept hands pressed together at the chest—keeping eyes focused on their own reflection in the wall of mirrors in front of them.

The room is kept hot, 100 plus degrees, to honor the environment of yoga’s origins in India. As sweat drips from pores, the skin’s surface supporting the foot begins to get slippery.

The pose is Vrikshasana or tree pose and is one of the most commonly practiced and ancient yoga poses in the world.

But the next day, in another 100 plus degree room at a studio less than a mile away the same pose looked a bit different.

“Lock your knee,” the instructor’s said from a microphone while standing from a high pedestal in the front of the room. “The pose doesn’t even start until you can lock your knee.”

With left knees locked in place the students brought their right foot high onto the left thigh, adjusting it to turn up toward the ceiling before bringing their hands to the chest in prayer. From there the class of 25 men and women remained in synch. There was no instruction to play with hands position, only to press the palms together as firmly as they could.

Faces remained intently focused on their reflection.

“Don’t even blink,” the instructor said.

The studio is one of an estimated 650 Bikram’s yoga studios in the United States. The pose is part of a 26 Asana or posture series copyrighted by self-titled yoga master Bikram Choudhury—meaning that even if students wanted to they couldn’t ever really “make it their own.”

To an outsider the differences between the two studios approach to teaching the same position seem trivial. But practicing yoga off and on for a few years has shown me that in yoga even the subtlest differences are important.

There is a notion it seems in a lot of the yoga community that deviating from tradition taints the practice. While this may not be the intended message, what this translates to for new people is that if you aren’t a master, you aren’t welcome. Undoubtedly yoga’s history should be honored—it’s beauty and value is in its roots. But this focus on its antiquity seems to have negated yoga’s spiritual intent of unity by discouraging instructors from letting new people in.

According to the Bikram website, Bikram Choudhury is the “most respected living yoga Guru in the world.”

This attitude shone through at his Eugene studio, where the instructor, standing on a pedestal, barked orders at the students, never suggesting any alternative poses to support new people or appearing willing to deviate at all from the structured sequence. I have had similar experiences at the Boulder studio as well.

And for those who practice Bikram yoga the structure and challenge is part of the appeal. I’ve heard Bikram’s instructors often say that yoga is supposed to be painful —  it’s supposed to be hard.

Bikram says on his site that “If you follow my instruction and do my yoga postures sequence to the best of your ability, you will live a better, healthier and more peaceful life.” And follows this up with, “you will not get the intended benefits until it is done hundred percent correct.”

Challenging is good, but this attitude that yoga can only be done one specific way seems to encourage a rift between teacher and the students who do not fit the yogi mold.

At Zen Spot, Kelli Harrington who created the studio with her husband Michael Bittner, insisted, “We are not your gurus.”

They do not intend to be idolized by their students, but to connect with them.

Unlike studios I’ve been to before, the couple has made a noticeable effort to make their vinyasa practice open to everyone and encourage all different types of people to take part in it.

“If you want people to make this a lifestyle you have to give them a space to make it a lifestyle,” Harrington said.

With Bittner’s background in feng shui, they have created a studio that is clean and pleasant to be in. But more importantly, they are welcoming to everyone, not just veteran yogis, who comes in to practice. And it seems to work. Rather than the cookie cutter, perfect yoga bodies that fill the studios I’ve been to in Boulder, Zen Spot is filled with men and women of all different ages, shapes and sizes.

“This  (yoga) is an opportunity for everyone to get in touch with their body and be themselves,” Bittner says. “I want people to have that opportunity.”

This does not seem like the attitude of a lot of instructors, especially at Bikram’s studios. Most might think they are encouraging people to practice, but their approach says the opposite.

And it’s more than just a difference in an instructor’s approach to teaching yoga. It seems there is difference in opinion in the community on yoga’s intent.

“My ultimate goal would be to have everyone in the room look in the mirror and love themselves,” Bittner said of what he hopes his students get out of a class.

Though she refused an interview after class the instructor at the Bikram’s studio agreed to address the same question, but had a decidedly different answer and one that is reflective of the yoga experience there.

“In a word,” she said, “transformation.”

So, what happens if we don’t?

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