by Lorraine Anderson

“Life is an endurance sport,” a personal coach I employed once told me. She wanted her clients to understand that personal sustainability is the only foundation on which a culture of sustainability can be built. Yet how many of us know how to truly care for and pace ourselves so we don’t burn out or fall into chronic ill health by midlife? I’ve found for myself that it’s essential to have a physical-spiritual practice, something I show up for day after day, no matter how I’m feeling or what else is going on. For me that practice is yoga.

Yoga is an ancient teaching that has been passed down from prehistoric India, through various lineages of teachers, and adapted to the modern world. The word means “yoke” or “union,” referring to the unification of individual consciousness with universal consciousness. Although in the West we tend to think of yoga as physical exercise performed on a mat, this is only one of many forms of yoga, the ultimate goal of which is self-understanding, self-realization, and leading a moral life in harmony with nature.

Expanded awareness aside, the yoga-on-a-mat approach, practiced in a 60- to 90-minute class at a gym or yoga studio has a lot to offer people looking for a sustainable way of coping with the daily stresses and challenges of postmodern life. A wide menu of yoga choices is available to those who live in the Willamette Valley, and the benefits are real. To get started, you only need a yoga mat, a water bottle, and loose-fitting clothing. You can practice yoga regardless of your current age, physical condition, or religious belief.

Benefits of Yoga

“Yoga is your filling station for health and vitality,” exhorts my teacher at Bikram’s Yoga College of India. As I and other devotees twist ourselves into sweaty pretzels, we’re glad to be reminded why we’re willingly undergoing this particular type of torture early on a Tuesday morning. Yoga promises to make you calm, self-confident, radiant, peaceful, flexible, and strong. These are all qualities I can use as I attempt to navigate earning a living, keeping a house and a companion animal, and maintaining a multitude of relationships with friends and family on a planet careening toward economic and climate chaos.

Besides that, shoulder to shoulder with zillions of other members of the Baby Boom generation, I recently surpassed the sobering milestone of 55 and would like to age like fine wine, rather than becoming sedentary, obese, disoriented, and disabled. Yoga is my anti-aging serum. It improves circulation, respiration, and balance. It regulates the glandular system, strengthens the nervous system, and reduces stress-induced toxins such as adrenaline and cortisol. It can help alleviate and manage heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, arthritis, asthma, bronchitis, obesity, musculoskeletal misalignments, and back pain.

The yoga-on-a-mat approach is a great stress reliever because its regimen of alternately contracting muscles and letting them go can release deeply held tensions in the core of the body. It’s also an effective way to enhance concentration and mental clarity as blood begins to circulate more freely to the brain. And yoga is an antidepressant and anti-anxiety treatment with no side effects.

Happily, you don’t have to be able to place your foot behind your neck or your head on your derriere to get the full benefits of yoga. Just try it the right way and you’ll get 100 percent benefit, my teachers are always saying. This is comforting to me as I stretch repeatedly to get into the awkward one-legged balancing posture known as dandayamana janu shirasana (standing forehead to knee posture) that has for nearly three years remained beyond my grasp. Kneecaps pulled up, thigh muscles contracted, I try it the right way and get 100 percent benefit.

Styles of Yoga

The yoga we usually think of when we’re looking for a yoga class is actually the branch of yoga known as hatha. Hatha yoga is physicalyoga-on-a-mat. Practitioners assume and hold various poses, called asanas, and do breathing exercises known as pranayama. These practices are intended to put the mind into a focused state to prepare for meditation. Coming to stillness between postures and after the last posture (in a pose known as savasana or “dead body”) is an important part of the workout.

From the fountainhead of hatha yoga flows many different styles and brands of physical yoga, varying from gentle stretching with an inward focus to intense, sweaty aerobic workouts geared to those who are already quite physically fit. Some styles of yoga require props such as blocks, straps, and bolsters, while others don’t. No style is better than any other; it’s all a matter of personal preference.

Following are descriptions of some of the more popular styles of hatha yoga represented in classes that you can find at local yoga studios. If studios describe their classes only as gentle yoga, restorative yoga, prenatal yoga, beginning yoga, or the like, you can expect these classes to take a fairly gentle, generic approach and to use props. The same style of yoga can be interpreted differently by individual teachers, so you may want to sample classes taught by different teachers before deciding that any particular style isn’t for you.

Anusara, which means “following your heart” or “stepping into the flow of divine will,” is a style of yoga that combines an emphasis on physical alignment with a philosophy grounded in the belief in the goodness of all beings. Classes are usually light-hearted and employ a variety of postures that open the heart, both physically and mentally. Developed in 1997 by John Friend, this style is appropriate for students at a range of levels and usually employs props.

Ashtanga is a physically demanding style of yoga, always performed in the same order, flowing from one posture to the next to develop strength, flexibility, and stamina. It’s generally practiced in a heated room in order to raise “the internal fire.” Developed by K. Pattabhi Jois, ashtanga is not for beginners or anyone who’s been taking a leisurely approach to fitness.

Bikram is a hot, sweaty, and physically demanding style of yoga, consisting of a series of 26 postures and 2 breathing exercises designed to exercise every muscle, tendon, ligament, and joint in the body. The postures are always performed in the same order, beginning with the standing series and moving to the floor series. The room is kept at 95 to 105 degrees to loosen muscles and encourage a cleansing sweat. Founder Bikram Choudhury studied yoga with Bishnu Ghosh, brother of Paramahansa Yogananda, author of the spiritual classic Autobiography of a Yogi.

Kundalini yoga is designed to give you “hands on” experience of your highest consciousness by raising your kundalini, the flow of energy and consciousness. Kundalini energy awakens at the base of the spine and is drawn upward like a snake uncoiling. Besides yoga postures, this style includes breathing, chanting, and meditation. Yogi Bhajan, who introduced kundalini yoga to the West in 1969, wrote the following, referring to the spiritual benefits of yoga: “Within us lives the most calm, serene lake of wisdom, the most beautiful, powerful pond of kindness, compassion and clarity. Let us understand and let us dive into it within ourselves.”

Power yoga is a fitness-based approach closely modeled on the ashtanga style of yoga. Unlike ashtanga, it doesn’t follow a set series of poses, but it does flow from one posture to the next and emphasizes strength and flexibility. It was probably power yoga that prompted the current surge of yoga interest in America, as people began to see yoga as a way to work out.

Svaroopa is a consciousness-oriented yoga that promotes healing and transformation by using the body as a tool. Not an athletic endeavor, it teaches significantly different ways of doing familiar poses and emphasizes opening the spine and expanding the mind to a state of svaroopa—the bliss of one’s own being. Developed by Rama Berch, it promises relief from back pain, muscle strain, and everyday stress.

Vinyasa, like hatha, is a general term used to describe classes that focus on a breath-synchronized flow of postures.

Local Studios

Studios that offer yoga or some combination of yoga and other fitness classes can be found throughout the Willamette Valley. Yoga is also offered through community recreation programs and through continuing education at community colleges, at gyms and fitness centers, and by individual teachers. The drop-in cost typically ranges from $10 to $14 per class; you can usually get a discount by paying for more classes in advance.

Here are a few local studios:

Sweet Yoga Studio, Corvallis, 541-231-5992, (svaroopa)

Yoga Center of Corvallis, Corvallis, 541-757-3704, (hatha)

Cedar and Fir Studio, Corvallis, 541-231-6091, (hatha, vinyasa)

Bikram’s Yoga College of India, Corvallis, 541-757-9642, (Bikram)

Freedom Yoga, Eugene, 541-465-9642, (anusara) Tamarack Wellness Center, Eugene, 541-683-7506,, (hatha, anusara, aqua yoga)

Bikram’s Yoga College of India, Eugene, 541-349-9642 (Bikram)

Celebration Belly Dance and Yoga Studio, Eugene, 541-345-3947, (hatha, power yoga)

Yoga West, Eugene, 541-686-0432, (kundalini)

A Healing Space, Eugene, 541-343-1887, (hatha)

Indigo Wellness Center, Salem, 503-370-9090, (hatha, ashtanga, power yoga)

Also check out Breitenbush Hot Springs, 503-854-3320, for various yoga workshops.

Yoga classes often conclude with teacher and students bowing to each other, bringing the hands together over the heart, and trading the word namasté“the divine being in me salutes the divine being in you.” Namasté.

Lorraine Anderson is a freelance writer and editor living in Corvallis.

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