AS LITTLE AS 10 years ago, yoga was something arcane, off the freeway, something California woo-woos with too much money did in their spare time.>"/>
AS LITTLE AS 10 years ago, yoga was something arcane, off the freeway, something California woo-woos with too much money did in their spare time. Today, if not yet quite mall-ready, yoga classes seem to be everywhere else, from YWCAs to Pentecostal church basements. So fashionable is yoga, longtime practitioners are beginning to fear that their beloved discipline is turning into a fad: the aerobics of the '00s.
It's dangerous to underestimate the American public's ability to vulgarize, commercialize, and drain of substance any subject upon which it turns its novelty- addicted eye. But yoga per se has been around since circa 150, and much that is still vital within the tradition was probably already a millennium old when the sage Pata�i codified its principles back then.
The reason we're unlikely to see yoga turn brown round the edges like aerobics or the Canadian Air Force exercise regime is that yoga is as much applied science, behavioral code, and worldview as it is a system of physical exercise.
Eighteen hundred years is a long time, and yogic philosophy and practice have evolved and branched and recurved upon themselves, to the point that even a devoted enquirer can grow bewildered trying to find the common-sense roots beneath the tangle of ideological exuberance.
But the essential goal of yoga training is simple to state: to develop, in Pata�i's words, "the ability to direct the mind exclusively toward an object and sustain that direction without any distractions" (T.K.V. Desikachar's translation).
The object in question, for most yogic traditions, is breath: the pure in and out of air that maintains both body and mind, constantly modulating our consciousness without our being conscious of it.
But unlike the programmed pulsations driving blood and bowel, breathing is, within wide limits, amenable to conscious control. By focusing on the breath, the practitioner of yoga opens an avenue of communication between conscious and unconscious. The more concentrated the focus, the more the scatterbrained butterfly we call the mind is silenced, allowing other levels of the brain and body to make known their needs and desires—and, serious practitioners say, avail us of their own peculiar wisdoms and insights as well.
For beginners—and all but a tiny proportion of Americans are beginners and always will be—wisdom and insight are not uppermost in mind; not while trying to stand calmly on one leg without tipping over, or keeping the pace of inhalation and exhalation steady while the heart is screaming for more oxygen now!
But that's the great thing about yoga: If you follow its instructions faithfully, wisdom and insight are your reward. Attending to the body, the spirit is refreshed; quieting the mind allows it to fill with understanding, with no mediating words to confuse the issue.
The reason that yoga has spread so widely in recent years without incessant cover stories and TV magazine plugs is that it works: Doing it makes one feel better, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Yoga can be perverted, as when it turns into a stressful anything-you-can-bend- I-can-bend-farther competition between endorphin junkies or, even worse, a game of who's-more-spiritual-than-thou. But such perversions are in direct contradiction to the basic mantra of yoga: Only one enemy stands between you and enlightenment, and that enemy resides within yourself.
THE MESSAGE and purpose of yoga may be simple, but getting started on a practice of one's own can be very difficult. Many experts disapprove of buying a beginner's book and trying out some of the yoga basics at home, but experience indicates that it's a good idea to have some notion of what your body wants and doesn't want to do before putting it in the hands of a busy professional. Teachers and programs are as idiosyncratic as the proportions of one's own body, and finding the right match between one and the other can be a lengthy, frustrating process. If you don't have some notion of what you're looking for when you start shopping, it takes just that much longer.
But most yoga programs have one big advantage over, say, joining a health club: You don't have to pay a lump sum in advance to find out if the program's for you. Because yoga teachers and schools use a bewildering variety of words, phrases, and formulas to describe what they propose to do to you, it's best to ignore the words and concentrate on the vibes. Drop in to pick up a brochure, certainly; listen to what the staff says. But pay more attention to the atmosphere of the place. If you don't feel good being there, it's highly unlikely you're going to learn much to your advantage. If you're allowed, audit a class before you take one; watching will teach you a lot of things you'll be too busy to notice while working out yourself.
But once you find a class and teacher that seem to meet your needs, stick with them long enough to find out: Hopping from one approach to another, you'll never learn to discipline yourself, no matter how demanding each approach may be.
Above all, remember that the class is a means to an end. Yoga's not about skeletal flexibility or muscle tone or even breath control: It's about knowledge, clarity of vision of self and the world. Your classmates, even your teacher, are fellow strivers, companions, and helpers, not masters or competitors.
In the Yoga Sutras (3.19-20), Pata�i acknowledges that a trained outsider can garner a lot of information about one's physical and mental states through observation, but that "the cause of the state of mind of one individual is beyond the scope of observation by another." In the end, the only guru we can count on is inside.
For a list of area yoga classes, see the online version of this article at www.seattleweekly.com.
A few books the author has found useful in his own approach to the subject:
Yoga for Beginners by Mark Ansari and Liz Lark (Harper Perennial, $18.95)
Just what the title says, and the large step-by-step photos, stand-up spiral-bound format,and abundant cautions against injury make the book the perfect primer for neophytes who want to experiment in privacy before exposing their inadequacies to fellow students.
The Heart of Yoga by T.K.V. Desikachar (Inner Traditions International, $19.95)
Subtitled "Developing a personal practice," Desikachar's book focuses on the yoga practice of Sri Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), but it is a splendidly nondogmatic introduction to the demonstrable mental and spiritual benefits of the discipline. Contains a line-by-line prose translation and commentary on Pata�i's Yoga Sutras.
Yoga for Wellness by Gary Kraftsow (Penguin Arkana, $24.95)
An attempt to apply traditional yoga for healing to Western therapeutics, Kraftsow's manual goes into almost overwhelming detail, but its thousand-plus photos of ordinary, funny-shaped people engaged in yogic activity are downright inspiring: You feel if they can do it, so can you.
Some local yoga centers to consider:
8 Limbs Yoga Centers
Anne Phyfe Snedeker
7345 35th Ave NE
Seattle, WA 98105
500 East Pike St.
Seattle, WA 98122
Ananda Meditation & Yoga Center
6509 Roosevelt Way NE
Seattle, WA 98115
The Ashtanga Yoga School
David & Catherine Garrigues
Two centers: Seattle (Capitol Hill) or Tacoma
206-261-1711 or 253-396-9878
Ballard Firehouse Yoga Studio
Mary Bersagel, RN
5429 Russell Ave. NW, Suite 300
Seattle, WA 98107
Bikram Method Hatha Yoga
Seattle, WA 98121-2208
The Center For Yoga of Seattle
Rrichard Schachtel, Director
2261 NE 65th St
Malama Yoga for Beginners
& In the Workplace
Mary Anne Seibert
117 E. Louisa Street, #403
Seattle, WA 98102-3279
The Practice Space
3524 Bagley Ave.N.
Seattle, W.A. 98103
206 - 632 - 5854
Rain City Yoga
5014 Roosevelt Way N.E. Suite B
Seattle, WA, 98105
Bikram Method Hatha Yoga
10606 17th Avenue N.E.
Seattle, Wa 98125
Sadhana Yoga Studio
2218 - 3rd Ave. N.
Seattle, WA 98109
5639 California Ave. SW
Seattle, WA 98136
1406 1/2 34th Avenue
Seattle, WA 98122 USA
The Sweat Box
Bikram Method Hatha Yoga
1417 10th Avenue, Suite B
Seattle, WA 98122
Katerina Wen, BFA, M.Ed, D.Hom
2348 49th Ave., SW
Seattle, WA 98116
The Yoga Barn Center for Wellness
660 N.W. Gilman Boulevard, #C6
Issaquah, WA 98027
2812 E Madison St
Seattle WA 98112