With an exotic reputation that keeps many people at a distance, yoga has come a long way since it was introduced in the West in the 1960s. Originally intended for 12-year-old monks to prepare for long periods of sitting meditation, the Eastern practice of Hatha yoga has been modified to suit the fast-paced West.
"Mainly four of the eight limbs of yoga are used here in the West," said Shar Smith, a private consultant and co-founder of the Yoga Den. "Our culture focuses more on what's going on outside of us. Yoga drops you inside yourself, and we're not used to that."
Besides the expected benefits of flexibility, regular practitioners of yoga claim it helps them in sports, injuries, chronic illness and pregnancy. Students claim that yoga has strengthened their minds, which has enabled them to overcome addictions, reach emotional stability and increase mental focus.
"I approached yoga more from a fitness perspective - it's a very healthy thing to do as often as possible," said David Albert, who has taken yoga at the Alaska Club for five years. "But once you learn the poses, you realize it's really about the breath and then you feel your body open up inside."
Juneau may be heaven for the beginning yoga student. In the mid-1980s, Wendy Hamilton taught classes at the VFW Hall and a studio above the current downtown McDonald's. Now classes are available at the Alaska Club, the Community School, University of Alaska Southeast and Rainforest Yoga (formerly known as the Yoga Den). A beginner can even start with a private consultation.
The two main types of yoga taught in Juneau are Kundalini yoga and the Lyengar style of Hatha yoga. Although completely different, each style can benefit the other.
Kundalini yoga is all about breath. Simply put, the breath is the vehicle students use to achieve balance, and not just within their bodies. This school of yoga has the reputation for enabling people to make powerful changes in their lives. One need not tie oneself in a pretzel to get there. The physical poses that accompany the breathing exercises are much simpler. The curious can drop into a Kundalini class at Rainforest Yoga to check it out, or start from the ground up by taking a comprehensive course through the Community School, starting in February.
"When you're done with a Kundalini class, your whole diaphragm and chest is exercised," said Chris Zack, a student at Rainforest Yoga since November 2002. "You really learn how to breathe. It has helped me with my Hatha yoga practice, as well as with swimming and walking."
The best places for a beginner to take a progressive course in Hatha yoga are UAS or Rainforest Yoga.
As the physical practice of poses, or asansas, Hatha yoga is what most people think of when they think yoga. The Lyengar style is a therapeutic yoga that uses props, if needed, to accommodate injuries. In any Lyengar class, the instructor gives detailed instructions on what to do with each muscle, joint or limb to get the proper alignment. The result is that the student engages in deep stretching and becomes very aware of where the bumps, knots and kinks are in their bodies.
"My concern is that people have a sense of where their muscle groups are, and what their body is doing," said Steve Wolf, an instructor at the Alaska Club and Rainforest Yoga.
Bev Ingram, an instructor at Rainforest Yoga, has practiced regularly for 12 years. She's dabbled in it since high school. Three years ago, she started teaching to give back to yoga all the benefits she received from it.
"I think the thing that kept bringing me back was that I felt more connected after each practice," Ingram said. "I'm a very shy person by nature. Yoga and teaching yoga has brought me out of my shell. Yoga helps balance the mind and the body."
Due to a back injury she's had since her teens, Smith started taking classes with Hamilton in 1985. Since then, Smith has become an excellent example of the healing benefits of the Iyengar style of Hatha yoga she teaches. As a private consultant, Smith states she's far more effective in her work with clients who have health issues.
"I came to yoga from a place of pain," said Smith. "When the body is working in top form, the mental agitation disappears. When you're working one-on-one, you can address the specific limitations of an individual's body."
The advantage of taking classes through a consultant or a studio is that a student would make more progress in an environment that is focused on yoga. But there are other avenues where a beginner can give yoga a try. A clear advantage to those who already belong to JRC-the Alaska Club is that there are classes available at no extra charge.
"This is my fifth try at it and this is the first class which wasn't too difficult for me," said Leah Magowan, a trainer who admits to neglect in stretching. "I definitely need to make this a habit because it felt so good."