June 28, 2013

I Am Not a Freak: Practicing Yoga in the Midwest. ~ Kim Stanley

Photo: irishtimes.com

Being a yogi in a smaller Midwest town does not exactly help one fit in.

It is still considered a bit weird. People are a little suspicious of you and your hippie-like, vegetable-eating, tree-hugging, peace-loving, toe- touching ways.

The Bible belt you often hear about is more constricting than you might think and most folks are not always interested in offering Jesus or Charleston Heston any competition for pole position.

In a way, what I have experienced so far is similar to the story of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster. Also considered abnormal, he was run out of town by the local villagers based on just his outward appearance. I now think he may have just been a yogi looking for the right studio.

When I talk about “my practice” (in mixed non-yogi company), I sometimes get looks similar to what I imagine he received upon rolling into town all green and full of bolts. Those looks that say, “You are different and I must put you into a category to keep myself safe until I can figure you out.”

Frank was just like any other being—looking for love and acceptance and community. If people could have gotten past the different hairdo, the odd clothing and the grunting (sound familiar?), it might have been a very different story. But scared off by the yogi label, the Midwest villagers try to keep me away from their normal workout world. While there are no literal torches or pitchforks, their comments and actions sometimes make me feel like a monster.

My particular town was awarded the title of the Fattest City in America in 2002. Proudly, you could say that other, more “normal” exercise is finally somewhat mainstream here. You can’t swing a kettle ball without hitting a new Super Power Extreme Cross Fit Gym.

Why is Cross Fit normal? Jumping up from a dead stand on 40 plus year old knee joints does not sound like a good idea. Forcing yourself to show up somewhere where you are brutalized without the rejuvenating bliss of savasana at the end is not my idea normal. Frankly, it sounds masochistic and like something from a horror movie.

Yet when I talk to friends, many who are overweight and have not been to a gym in decades, have no problem talking about the wondrous health benefits of cross fit. Even though they may have only gone to their beloved house of pain once or twice, they are still not interested in trying my “crazy new age yoga.” It’s a fad, they say. My speech about it being 5,000 years old apparently does not impress them as much as, “it’s only 10 dollars per month with free tanning.”

I can’t even get my own family to get over the weird factor. My sister in law was at SFO recently and posted a shot of the Yoga Room on my Facebook timeline. I was about to “Like it” when I noticed her comment:

“Give me a break.”

What was the Yoga Room doing that was interfering with her airport experience? Were people breaking into down dogs instead putting their 3 ounce liquid items in the gray bins? No, it is just something weird to her. Instead of appreciating the existence of such a fantastic perk, she had to cut it up like it was some unpopular kid I know with whom she secretly wants to be friends. Having never tried yoga I am not sure what her reason was for needing a “break.”

Running is the normal thing to do here. I have many runner friends. They run and their knees ache and their backs hurt and yet, they continue running. I have friends that have finished a half marathon and then peed blood the next day! This is normal? Urinating blood does not sound like reward; it sounds like a symptom of something that needs immediate medical attention. Why doesn’t this behavior sound monstrous to everyone that hears it? My pee stays a nice yellow, thank-you-very-much, no matter how many yoga classes I go to each week.

I have also heard tales of runners almost bragging about their toenails falling off. Gross! And again, not normal. You do not have to become a bloody leper to do yoga.

Yoga will work every muscle you have (including the big grey one between your ears), give you more cardio than you can lust for without any bloodshed. I feel as though my friends should stop running before someone loses an eye. Although this may hold more clout than a toenail, I can’t be sure.

I recently taught a chair yoga class at a local nursing home. I began with focusing on our breath by extending our inhale and exhale. All seemed to be alright with what I was afraid would be a pretty skeptical crowd, when one woman began to have an outburst.

“What is this? This is crazy! This is stupid! What is this?” She continued repeating this, loudly, until she eventually had to be removed. Through her yelling I persevered, even getting this group of seniors to try Ujjayi breath and a group Om. I was still afraid she was just the only one vocalizing what was going through all of their pretty blue heads. What is this yoga business? This may seem abnormal if you have never been exposed to it and have only known exercise that was made to be punishing.

Fortunately, our concept of normal is still changing. Had someone told you 20 years ago that it would be completely normal to pay $5 for a cup of coffee, you would have spit out your Sanka in their face. Yet today we actually budget our spending with an allotment for our fancy coffee or tea needs. Maybe I could package the two to make yoga more appealing in my Midwest town. I could add a little raw sugar with the yoga medicine.

Yoga already seems to be more of a draw when combined with other words regardless of how completely irrelevant those words are to the practice of yoga. Combinations such as yogaloxing, yogalates, and Sypgna (yoga + spinning) have been offered. Would a Yogalate Frapachino get better attendance from the skeptical Midwest? If I had a nickel for every time I have had to explain that yoga is not a religion to my Midwest friends, I could buy a Yogalate Frappachino.

But alas, I will still have to only dream of non-weirdness and total acceptance in this part of the country. We are usually a few years behind so it will get here eventually.

I recently read a New York Times article describing the multiple yoga studios on every block. When you walk down the city sidewalk most people are carrying a yoga mat not a fire arm and a banjo. (Okay, I’m exaggerating—not everyone here has a banjo.)

Here in the Midwest, folks are a little slower to catch on and many people I talk to do not consider yoga normal yet, and are even afraid to try it. They think it’s harmful, sinister, and even evil.

They look at it much like Frankenstein—a misunderstood gentle creature with an unusual exterior just looking for love and acceptance and a community to call home.


Kim Stanley spent her formative yoga years with some of the best teachers in Fort Wayne and has practiced in studios across the country.  She believes life is too short not to find what makes you happy—your true bliss—and follow it.  The study of yoga is what makes Kim happy and sharing that joy with students is her Ananda.  After ten years of instruction, the most beautiful thing about yoga to her is its adaptability to everyone.  No matter your age, physical ability or state of mind, you can take a class and find peace every single time; it’s the only sure thing in this life.  Kim has completed her 200 RYT and looks forward adding ERYT to her resume. She has a B.S. in Organizational Leadership and lives in Fort Wayne with her husband Rick and two children; Jack and Michelle.


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