It's your yoga

Science confirms many benefits of yoga, and there are numerous places to pursue it in Clark County

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

It's your yoga

Vancouver offers options for yoga enthusiasts and newcomers.

How's that body feel?

Maybe it hurts. Maybe it's functional, graceful, even beautiful. Or maybe it's, um, OK, probably?

Maybe you have no idea how it feels. Yoga can help you figure it out — and, while you're at it, figure out who you really are.

Yoga "is about coming home to know how it feels to live in this shape," said teacher Sundari SitaRam of downtown Vancouver's Shanti Yoga Center.

"Body awareness" is a central point, agreed teacher Melonie Nielsen. But it doesn't stop there. Because it combines poses and movement with motionless meditation, serious exertion with deep relaxation, yoga is a discipline for both body and mind.

"People come in for the workout at first," said Nielsen, of Vancouver Yoga Center, also downtown. Even ambitious students who want to train as instructors "start out saying, 'I don't care about the philosophy, I just want to learn the stretching and the fitness.'"

Those are the same people, Nielsen said, who come to realize that yoga has exceeded their expectations — touching something deeper than the muscles and the spine.

"Yoga takes your busy, fragmented life, and pulls all the pieces together," Nielsen said.

A speedy, stressed-out society that's hungry for D-I-Y health — and a sense of meaning — is the perfect incubator for a fitness trend that blends easy-access spirituality into the burn. A 2012 survey conducted by a sports marketing researcher for Yoga Journal magazine estimated that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga; that's an increase of nearly 5 million over the previous survey, four years earlier. The same survey found that practitioners spend $10.3 billion per year on all things yoga-related, from clothing and equipment to classes and retreats.

"Our society is really focused on being healthy," said Erika Lasee, owner of the Bikram Hot Yoga Vancouver studio near Big Al's bowling alley on the east side. "People are realizing the benefits of yoga, and how good it makes them feel."

Roller coaster

Maybe not immediately. New yoga students typically carry a load of aches and pains, nerves and anxieties into the studio with them: "I can't do yoga, I'm too stiff." "Look at all those trim bodies — I don't belong here." "I can't meditate." "I'm doing this wrong."

"Everybody is struggling with something," Nielsen said. "We all have certain parts of our bodies that are stronger or weaker, that hurt or don't do what we wish they would or think they should."

New students should try it more than once, all teachers The Columbian spoke to said. Don't get scared off by the skinny pretzels around you or the directions that confuse you. Yoga is, fundamentally, an individual pursuit that moves at an individual pace. If you struggle and sweat and do one thing right, Lasee said, "then that's your yoga for the day." Ditto if you manage to lift your little finger while the class is doing headstands. Ditto if your mind is racing while everyone else seems maddeningly placid.

"It's never about perfecting the pose, it's about perfecting the mind," said SitaRam. "That's a lifelong challenge."

Even the most experienced yogis ride the "yoga roller coaster," Lasee said. "You're going to have good days and bad days. But the good news is, you benefit from all of it."

Science salutation

What exactly are the benefits? For that matter, what is "yoga"?

It's is a system of spiritual, mental and physical disciplines that began in ancient India. Hindu monks introduced yoga to the West in the 1800s. According to the 2012 book "The Science of Yoga," by New York Times reporter and yoga enthusiast William J. Broad, the essentially physical regime of yoga that we know today — low-impact exercise based on poses and stretches — was systematized and sanitized only as recently as the 1920s and 1930s. That's when the hallowed sun-salutation series of poses, seemingly so central to yoga's ancient spirit, made its debut.

As its title suggests, Broad's book surveys the hard science that has put yoga to the test, and casts a critical eye on the panoply of claims made across years and even centuries — starting with truly magical stuff like levitation, stopping and starting the heart at will, curing diseases and turning gray hair dark again.

Miracles like suspended animation easily proved fraudulent, but the way some yogis could dramatically slow their metabolisms did lead scientists to confirm one of yoga's chief benefits: the relaxation achieved during yoga amounts to a slowing of the biological clock and a boost for heart health. Yoga "has been found to lower such cardiovascular risk factors as high blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol" and clotting agent fibrinogen, Broad writes; it also bolsters cancer-fighting antioxidants in the bloodstream and lowers "oxidative stress," essentially slowing the aging process; it improves strength and balance (crucial for adults at risk of falls) as well as moods; it promotes blood and nutrient flow into the spine and can counteract the deterioration of spinal discs; it can ease arthritis and stimulate the immune system; it can even depress cortisol and raise testosterone, leading to stronger arousal and better sex. Science has proved all of this.

What yoga doesn't do, Broad writes, is shed pounds. Many yoga teachers claim otherwise, but according to Broad, science has concluded yoga is not an aerobic activity. It has many healthful results, but burning calories is not one of them. In 2007, scientists at Columbia and Long Island universities in New York City designed a rigorous experiment to measure effects of yoga exercise — including an isolating "metabolic chamber" — and had their subjects do an hourlong series of poses that emphasized not stillness but vigorous activity, like the sun-salutation series.

The result: "The yoga sessions failed to meet the minimal aerobic recommendations" of international health organizations. Even vigorous yoga didn't bring any more aerobic benefit than, say, a leisurely walk on the treadmill, Broad writes.

Not surprisingly, Broad's sober and extensive survey of the science hasn't earned him fans among local teachers nor what he calls the "yoga industrial complex." "The Science of Yoga" even includes a long chapter on yoga injuries, exploring what can happen when people throw themselves into the practice too boldly.

But it does stress another scientific finding: yoga feels good. It elevates moods and wards off stress and depression. In this reporter's experience (three years of generic health-club and living-room yoga), it's "addictive" in the best possible way.

In fact, SitaRam said her classes regularly draw people in recovery from addiction who credit yoga with helping them stay clean, calm and chemical-free. Science has verified the addiction-fighting value of yoga, Broad writes.

Fast, slow, real life

In the late 1960s, science latched onto vigorous exercise as a general health panacea; enterprising yogis began building the new principle of aerobics into their routines. They developed styles such as flowing Ashtanga, which emphasizes constant dancelike movement between poses, and "power flow," which Broad calls "Ashtanga on steroids," and even commercial franchises such as YogaFit, which mixes yoga with strength training and other vigorous exercise -- and offers its own branded clothing line, too.

The approach at Nielsen's Vancouver Yoga Center is on the slow side. "We are an alignment-based school," she said — meaning students sometimes hold poses in stillness while Nielsen moves around the room, making corrections and adjustments. Aerobic fitness is not what she's after. "We are focused on the correct forms," she said. "I like to take time for education."

At the Shanti studio, Sundari SitaRam offers a wide variety of classes, from slow to vigorous, from focused on back care to driven by live drumming and chanting. SitaRam definitely comes down on the spiritual end of the spectrum; for her, yoga is a whole approach to life.

"I don't mean to sound too airy-fairy, but keeping up that pace out there is killing our culture," she said. "We're not better by how fast we go and how much we acquire. I think a lot of people are realizing, I need to catch my breath." Her studio, she added, "is just the laboratory. Your real practice begins the minute you walk out the door."

Sweaty and strong

The trendiest newcomer in yoga is hot. Literally. The temperature in Erika Lasee's Bikram Hot Yoga Vancouver studio is set at 105 degrees Fahrenheit and 40 percent humidity. You stay in there for 90 minutes. Your sweaty effort is equal parts heroic and disgusting. The first time you try it, Lasee said, the point is just to "survive and not leave the room." You may feel dizzy or nauseous.

Sounds like fun? Birkram yoga "can be a shock," Lasee said. The reason for the extreme heat — as trademarked by founder Bikram Choudhury — is to loosen the joints and muscles for optimal flexibility and safety while you pose; to sweat so much that you shed toxins; and — not insignificantly — to emerge with a feeling of triumph and joy.

"That's definitely a big part of it," Lasee said. "The mind is such a powerful thing, you want it to be saying, 'I can do this! I am stronger than I realized!' People are surprised at how strong they are."

As one of Lasee's instructors, the charismatic Elio Masa, said during class, "Hot yoga doesn't give you what you want. It gives you what you need. Mind over matter."

The people who choose this rigorous new form of yoga seem eager for a challenge; bodies in the packed class this reporter sampled seemed particularly camera-ready. Lasee said there's absolutely no question that Birkram yoga burns calories and sheds pounds. "I see it every day. We have people who wear heart monitors in class" and report burning as many as 800 calories per session, she said.

Another branch of her Bikram business will open this spring in Hazel Dell's J&M Plaza, she said; meanwhile, two yoga studios that bill themselves as "hot" but not "Bikram" recently opened on the east side and in Salmon Creek. Vancouver Parks and Recreation just sponsored a yoga series for adult caregivers (http://wellspringforcaregivers.com) at Marshall Community Center, and the St. John's Presbyterian Church in Camas is about to launch a "Holy yoga" introduction to the practice for Christians (http://holyyoga.net). Google up yoga studios in Clark County, and well over a dozen options pop up, from Battle Ground to Camas.

"It's all good," Lasee said. "It's all yoga."

Scott Hewitt: 360-735-4525; scott.hewitt@columbian.com.