The Citizen talks shop and salutations with local yoga instructors
It’s as old as civilization itself – an endeavor created thousands of years ago that marries breath with movement. Inspired from our natural world and from human nature, the poses are as powerful as Mountain, playful as Downward Dog, sturdy as Tree, flowing as Sun Salutations, fearless as Warrior and still as Corpse. In Sanskrit, it means “to yoke” or join and for many throughout the world and in Morgan County, it is a long glorious stretch to peace, to health, to presence, to a quiet mind. For some it is no less than a path to God.
Perhaps yoga’s growing interest stems from the powerful lasting effects it creates both physically and mentally. But one thing is certain: To those who practice it regularly, yoga is transformative.
Its popularity here is partly attributable to the local availability of three, highly trained and experienced instructors who lead popular practices in a variety of venues. They are Madisonian Allison Bourgeois with a Madison home practice for individuals or pairs as well as classes at Madison Fitness Center and at UpTown Athletics; Madisonian Elise Faust with a practice at Madison Family Chiropractors and at Madison Fitness Center; and Eva Young with her Young Yoga Studio at The Co-Op on East Main in Rutledge.
Yoga’s allure is also found in its inherent absence of barriers in terms of age, ability or mobility. Virtually anyone can do it.
“It actually changes your life! You’ll never be the same,” said Bourgeois (or Allie to her clients and friends). She’s been practicing yoga for 20 years, became certified in a variety of yoga practices and began teaching seven years ago. Among her favorite practices are Yin Yoga and Therapeutic Yoga. “Therapeutic Yoga is like acupuncture without the needles! We practice very safe positions and it involves visualizations that focus on various parts of the body that need attention. It’s done on a one-on-one basis,” said Bourgeois, who makes yoga house calls.
Madisonian Chris Brandon has been a therapeutic yoga client with Allie for about a year and a half. “In the process of recuperating from low back discomfit, I went to an incredibly good physical therapist who suggested yoga. I started slowly but have progressed far.” He says in the beginning he could not even come close to touching his toes from a standing position. “Now I can touch the floor with my hands.” Brandon says Allie tailors his yoga sessions to his individual therapy needs. “I thought yoga was all about stretching, but it’s more about strength – core strength. A strong core is the best precaution against bad backs. It has also greatly improved my flexibility. I walk longer, straighter and feel stronger.”
As to Yin Yoga, Bourgeois says it changed her life. You hold a pose for at least five minutes so it focuses your mind and helps create a state of balance. “Yin is the part of us that makes us want to change to be less active, cooler. It really focuses on connective tissues and is perfect for athletes especially runners.”
Bourgeois’ “caretaker” spirit is what attracted her to becoming a yoga instructor. I’m a preacher’s daughter and became a chef and operator of a bed & breakfast so I’ve always been a nurturer. With yoga, I’m feeding people in a new way that brings me so much joy.”
Indeed, a private yoga session with Allie ends with homemade cookies and specially brewed tea. “I give people what I would want out of a yoga experience – to be taken care of in a safe environment and to get a good workout. I can give that.”
She advises you to not be timid about yoga. “Have a private class if you’re a beginner for more focused attention to poses. I just want you to find yoga.”
Julie Speyer of Madison, owner of Pure Bliss Spa & Shop in Madison, was introduced to yoga when Bourgeois began teaching yoga at Church of the Advent in 2005. She’s been hooked ever since. For her, yoga is an excellent complimentary practice to her rigorous cardio and weight workouts and creates time to express her spirituality. Physically, “it’s a great balance in your life and it keeps your body flexible. The breathing aspect is also important because it keeps the body oxygenated. It’s about strengthening your body and helps balancing other exercise regiments.” As to the spiritual benefits, Speyer says “it provides an excellent time to express gratitude for God and for all that I have. I feel like I’m more aware of God’s direction for me when I’ve done my yoga. It also allows me to be present with the people I encounter and the situations that arise during the day – I’m much more grounded.”
Today, Speyer also practices under yoga instructor and chiropractor Dr. Elise Faust of Madison. “I’ve learned that there are different types of yoga each serving a purpose and you don’t have to practice just one type. That’s what I love about Elise’s class because she mixes it up and you learn a lot about your body.”
Faust has been practicing yoga for 25 years – more than half her life. “My group classes have morphed into my own yoga style with emphasis on mindfulness, and the integration of breath, body and spirit. It is my hope to help people realize how transformational yoga can be in integrating the practice and philosophy of yoga on the mat, into life. She teaches three group classes a week, one weekly meditation class and some private classes on the side.
Trained in Iyengar yoga (a practice that focuses on postural alignment and breath), she says the benefits are powerful. “For me it’s how to live life. You carve time out of each day and you spend it paying attention – to patterns, tensions, pains in the body. Physically, as we age the first thing to go is flexibility and the average person is fairly inflexible to begin with. Yoga increases flexibility and discourages the loss of it. Professional athletes use it to cross train to reduce injuries. It also helps athletes create more “presence” focusing on all of their body in space - a still space. My goal is to expose more of our kids to yoga – especially those active in sports.”
Another proven physiological benefit is the focus on breath in that you take in more oxygen. She explains, that your parasympathetic nervous system reacts to stress anxiety and tension with shallow breathing, which causes your digestive system to break down. “Yoga teaches you to slow down, to take deep slow breaths. Therefore your breathing decreases the respiratory rate and your digestive system works better.”
Faust also says an integral part of yoga is meditation allowing practitioners to take the time to be still. “In our lives of stress, we’re going, going, going! It’s chaos! And this is the average person. Meditation is about slowing down the mind, training your ability to watch yourself, to pause before rushing into situations or encounters that are usually stressful – it’s about changing reactions to the mindless habits of response we’ve created to deal with worry and stress.”
Yoga instructor Eva Young agrees. “Yoga creates space to quiet the mind into the present moment. It’s a time to breathe. The whole practice is meditation. Truly yoga is meditation. We’re present this whole time in this practice. Yoga unites the mind, the body and the spirit or breath. It helps us control the mind. Our thoughts are powerful and they create vibrations. For example, fear. As it moves through the body . . . first the breath becomes shallow or almost stops. There’s a chemical reaction that begins to manifest in the body. Your heart rate increases; your body sends blood away from your digestive track. As adrenaline pushes blood to the surface of your skin, the pores open and release sweat. Yoga breathing can quickly combat the fear response or the habit you’ve developed to deal with stressful situations. Yoga is our true nature.”
With extensive training both regionally and at Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts, Young teaches yoga to a diverse group of students ranging in age from the mid-70s to kids ages 8 to 15 at her studio in Rutledge. “I have an eighth grade client with Cerebral Palsy. To Young, that client is among her most special. “He is my best teacher. My clients push me to come up with new ideas, to take different classes to try different strategies.”
Young credits her time at Kripalu as among her most valuable training in that it taught her to value everyone’s place in their yoga practice in terms of fitness, wellness and mindfulness. “You’ll have an advanced student and a student that has to sit in a chair to practice yoga. But you learn that everyone participates at a different level and takes their own path where they need to go. It’s how we experience that yoga that makes each practice unique . . . all rivers lead to the same ocean.”
Since every individual has different needs at different times, Young advises students: “Don’t get locked into one type of practice. Always explore.”
Before she started her practice with Young some three years ago Reba Smith of Madison didn’t really know what yoga was. “I barely knew how to spell it.” The breathing and just the atmosphere are what Smith loves most about yoga. “Life chases us around the block! I’m far more calm and less stressed. It’s very calming to me. Eva is an exceptional human begin – so kind and encouraging. It’s just a comfort zone and it helps my blood pressure. I can go in with elevated blood pressure from work and walk out with 120/68.”
Smith encourages people to give it a try. “Don’t be afraid! You don’t have to be an athlete. There are things in yoga I still can’t do and may or may not ever do, but you learn that it’s ok.” She also says that some people believe yoga to be a strange religious thing. “It’s not at all! I feel closer to God. That’s when I pray!”
Indeed, Smith composed her own mantra to pray while practicing yoga: Look back and thank God. Look forward and trust God. Look around and serve God. Look within and find God. “It’s all about peace and sharing. It’s beautiful.”
Printed in the November 29, 2012 edition.