Namaste: An Austin Yoga Guide

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UT alumna Diana Wilcox shows off her yoga skills at Breath & Body Yoga. Photo by Katie Arcos.

 

By Katie Arcos, Britny Eubank, James Grandberry and Hannah Smothers

Practiced all over the world, yoga has taken on a lot of other forms throughout its long history. Some yoga practices involve hanging from the ceiling in silk hammocks, and others involve making eye contact and laughing with a room full of strangers. Some practices are held in specially-designed studios equipped with custom-made heating equipment, and others are practiced in rented spaces tucked away in residential neighborhoods.

But no matter what the practice or the setting is, all yoga has something in common — students use the 60-90 minutes of class to escape from the stress, anxieties and worries of their everyday lives.

Each kind of yoga has its own distinctive traits, and everyone brings something different to their respective practice. The idea of yoga is universal, but the practice of it is incredibly personal.

Though no one is quite sure exactly where and when it originated, it is largely accepted that yoga has been around for thousands of years and has roots in the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain religions, largely in India. The practices and principles of yoga made their way to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that a yoga movement really took hold.

Hatha is the most basic form of yoga, and the most widely practiced form of yoga in the world. It focuses on movements and postures, or “asanas,” combined with breathing techniques that make up most of what we see in Western yoga practices. A lot of the practices that are popular today — like Vinyasa flow, Bikram and aerial yoga — incorporate or are inspired by hatha postures.

We explored some of the yoga practices available in Austin — from traditional vinyasa flow classes taught in a formal studio, to a weekly laughter yoga class held in a South Austin neighborhood — to give a glimpse into the local yoga scene.

Vinyasa flow

Power vinyasa yoga, or Ashtanga yoga, is like a modern-day version of traditional Indian yoga practices. It was popularized by K. Pattabhi Jois, who started practicing yoga at age 12 in Karnataka, India, in the early 20th century. Pattabhi Jois studied under one of the great yoga gurus of his time and later went on to the Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in 1948, which is used in teaching Ashtanga yoga all over the world.

Pattabhi Jois spent a lot of his life as a yoga instructor at the Sanskrit University in India and teaching yoga classes to students in his home. Over time, these classes grew in size as his reputation in the yoga world grew. By 2006, Pattabhi Jois’ dream of opening a studio in the U.S. came true — the first Ashtanga-based yoga studio was opened in Florida.

Today, Ashtanga-based yoga is taught all over the country, including Breath & Body Yoga in North Austin. Unlike other types of yoga, like Bikram, power vinyasa flow yoga relies heavily on constant motion — students are encouraged to make each posture active, whether they are moving their bodies from one pose to another, or pressing into their mats with their fingertips to add extra energy to a more stationary posture.

Desirae Pierce, owner and director of Breath and Body Yoga, taught the 75-minute vinyasa flow class I took in a heated room at her studio.

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Graphic by Katie Arcos, courtesy of infogr.am.

 

“We move and we move with mindfulness, we move with awareness, and we move with alignment of the body,” Pierce said. “What we’re in here to do is we’re in here to create a new form, a new shape inside the body, which is the naturalness of the bow spring of the natural curves of the spine and press out from there so we can be our fullest self.”

Pierce emphasized the importance of practicing every day in order to maximize the benefits vinyasa yoga provides. Those benefits range from things like simple weight loss to psychological and mental benefits for people who struggle with anxiety or depression.

“It’s something that you have to do in your body every single day – if that’s breathing, if that’s meditation, if that’s mindful eating, if that’s the movement that we’re doing in here,” Pierce said. “It becomes a way of life.”

Power vinyasa is not necessarily the best class for a beginner, like myself, to take for the very first time. Even though I run everyday, the class still felt intense. Vinyasa forces you to reach and extend your body to its fullest potential. The class was heated to about 90 degrees and challenged me from start to finish, and by the time it was over, I was sore in places I didn’t even know could hurt.

Breathing techniques, flexibility and balance are the three key elements of vinyasa yoga, and are also three things my body isn’t used to doing. Although the power vinyasa class left me with aches and pains, I enjoyed the atmosphere and my mind was at peace. -Katie Arcos

Bikram yoga

Popularized in the early 1970s by one of the yoga world’s biggest celebrities, Bikram Choudhury, Bikram yoga is a highly-structured, highly-disciplined series of 26 postures that are performed by students in a room heated to 105 degrees at 40 percent humidity — conditions Choudhury claims are meant to mimic the environment in his home of Calcutta, India.

The 26 postures — which are always taught in the same order, for the same amount of time and are always performed twice — derive from traditional hatha postures. Bikram classes are taught exactly the same all over the world, no matter what the teaching language is.

Choudhury is notoriously possessive over his yoga, which he brought from India to the U.S. in the 1970s. For the first 20 years, he taught the classes himself. It wasn’t until the early 1990s that he started offering his signature nine-week instructor course, which is required for anyone who wants to teach his yoga in a certified Bikram studio.

Mardy Chen, a Bikram-certified instructor and the co-owner of Pure Bikram Yoga, has been practicing this type of yoga since 1999, when she accidentally stumbled into a Bikram studio for her first ever yoga class.

“I came in with sweats on, and I thought, ‘Oh this will be fun, we’ll just sit and breathe,’ but there were heaters around the room,” Chen recalled. “What brought me back was the way that I felt after the class.”

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Graphic by Katie Arcos, courtesy of infogr.am.

 

At the time, Chen was working in finance in New York City. But after that first class, she said she felt relaxed yet energized. For those 90 minutes of class, she completely forgot about the stress of her job.

Three years later, she flew to Los Angeles for Choudhury’s instructor certification. Chen has since quit her finance job to make Bikram yoga her career.

“I like reputation, I like knowing what to expect to a certain degree,” Chen said. “I know that my body’s different every day, but I know that, for the most part, the postures are going to be the same.”

Like Chen, I was drawn to Bikram yoga for the structure. I wanted to be coached through a practice that I knew would be the same every day, no matter where I was. I also liked the idea of being in a room so hot you sweat immediately upon entering — it’s not dissimilar from walking around in Central Texas during the summer time.

The heat is pretty intense — Chen said a lot of first-time students are worried about passing out in class — but since you sweat so much, your body is constantly cooling itself off. During the class, you kind of feel like you’re going to have a heart attack at any minute, but afterwards, it’s hard not to feel refreshed and proud for having survived 90 minutes of demanding postures in a hot, humid room. -Hannah Smothers

Aerial yoga

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Graphic by Katie Arcos, courtesy of infogr.am.

An aerial — or anti-gravity — yoga studio setup is an unusual sight. The room itself looks a lot like a standard yoga studio with wood floors and mirrors along one wall. But, unlike a standard yoga studio, multicolored fabric slings called hammocks hang from the ceiling. These are the contraptions that give aerial yoga its edge, and are what the students use to bring their yoga off the ground and into the air.

Instead of the eastern hemisphere, aerial yoga comes from New York. Inspired by an acrobatic theater performance he saw Metropolitan Opera House, Christopher Harrison invented the anti-gravity hammocks in 1999. The idea to incorporate a new version of yoga into his hammocks came shortly after.

Each hammock is made of several yards of soft fabric — enough to stretch out to accommodate an average-sized person suspended lengthwise — and is hung in a U-shape from the ceiling by a system of support chains and carabiners. These chains themselves are hung from reinforced ceilings like the one at Four Elements Aerial + Creative Movements. The entire setup for each hammock is designed to hold upwards of 1,000 pounds.

Students use the hammocks to assist with the variety of postures practiced in aerial yoga classes, much of which are traditional hatha poses, such as Adho Mukha Śvānāsana, or downward facing dog. Suspending themselves in the hammocks allows practicers of aerial yoga to decompress their joints – spines in particular – to aid in performing the poses. By hanging from the air, students use gravity itself to achieve the proper postures and alignments of the poses.

This is what I experienced in my 75-minutes aerial yoga session at Four Elements. I was able to rely on the hammock to help me achieve some of the poses our instructor, Lydia Michelson-Maverick, guided us through — though I was the least graceful person in the room by a long shot. Even so, it was fascinating to see what our bodies were capable of doing with the help of the hammocks.

The only downside — no pun intended — is that swinging around in various postures from suspended hammocks can exacerbate pre-existing motion sickness. But Lydia told me that many professional aerialists formerly suffered from motion sickness, and prolonged practice of aerial yoga can actually help alleviate the symptoms. -Britny Eubank

Naked yoga

For as long as people have practiced yoga, there has been naked yoga. This “purest form” of the practice originated with the Naga Sadhus in India, who used naked yoga as a part of their spiritual practice to symbolize their renunciation of material and selfish desires, while emphasizing the natural connection of the body to the earth.

Even without blatant spiritual implications, a naked practice naturally allows for the freest expression of yoga, leaving behind even the shirt on your back to focus solely on the body, the breath and the practice.

Austin Naked Yoga celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, with over 200 regularly attending members and a mailing list about twice as large. The practice is male-only, since the co-ed or female-only classes couldn’t hold enough attendance to sustain them.

The three weekly classes are led by different instructors — I attended the Saturday morning class, led by instructor Daryn Eslinger, who began teaching at Austin Naked Yoga after two years of attending classes.

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Graphic by Katie Arcos, courtesy of infogr.am.

 

“I chickened out my first time,” Eslinger said. “I drove all the way up to Austin, I drove through the parking lot and went right back home. I’ve always been okay with nudity and going to nude beaches and things like that, but trying something really new always makes you nervous. I’ve been doing it for six or seven years now.”

The naked yoga studio is in a small strip mall in northeast Austin, marked only by a small sheet of printer paper that reads “yoga.”

The entrance to the studio is blocked off by four or five blankets hanging from a clothesline. Behind this shield, the yoga students shed their clothing, stretch, meditate and prepare for class. The practice itself isn’t too intense — the postures stretch the body but never get too challenging to complete.

The key difference, of course, is the lack of clothing.

“Actually it’s funny, because I don’t like going to clothed yoga,” Eslinger said. “Because the clothing gets in your way. Your shirt falls over your head, your pants bind up on you when you bend over or they crawl down and get uncomfortable. Once you’ve done it for a while and you’re not used to having those limitations, it’s kinda hard to go back to it.”

I agree. Being exposed to a room of complete strangers as my first yoga experience was a bit much, but once the class began, it was clear that Eslinger was right. Naked yoga offers a kind of freedom you just don’t find in other, more modest classes. -James Grandberry

Laughter yoga

Laughter yoga is one of the most unusual variations of the practice, built around a combination of pranayama yoga – which focuses on breathing techniques – and the act of laughing without reliance on humor, jokes or comedy. There are no traditional poses and no mats used — just group exercises involving a lot of eye contact and “childlike playfulness.”

The Laughter Yoga Club’s movement was started twenty years ago by an Indian doctor named Madan Kataria. Kataria developed 40 basic exercises, which are now performed by everyone who practices laughter yoga.

Linda Gillen, a laughter yoga instructor certified under Dr. Kataria himself, elaborated on the system.

“He has 40 basic exercises that everyone does and then there’s hundreds of others,” Gillen said. “He has 40 basic ones and he wants everyone to at least know those because it doesn’t matter where you are in the world — you don’t have to know the language.”

Gillen said there are over 7,200 laughter clubs around the world. Most of the clubs, like the one in Austin, stay connected through group pages on Meetup.com. That’s how Alison Miner, another certified laughing yoga instructor from Bend, Oregon, found the Austin club when she moved here a few years ago.

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Miner noted that improvisation is also encouraged in laughter yoga practice.

“You can make up your own up,” Miner said. “Even as part of the training, they had us make up a couple of scenarios. So it doesn’t get stale.”

There are many benefits to laughter yoga. Gillen said that laughter — whether it’s genuine or false — releases endorphins in the body that trigger mood improvement. Laughter yoga also operates as something of a cardio workout, oxygenating the body and brain, and increasing feelings of health and energy.

I felt these benefits during my session of laughter yoga, to an extent. It was extremely awkward in the moment, particularly because I personally put a lot of stock into comedy and what causes laughter, so it was strange to be laughing for no reason.

Many of the exercises were odd and I felt super out of my element. But I did feel less stressed at the end of the session, which is what Gillen and Miner said is the point of laughter yoga — it’s an hour to set the rest of your life aside and “just laugh your way through it.” -Britny Eubank

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