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Yoga-rama | The East Bay is yoga central where people find styles from rigorous to restorative that work for any body. | By Rachel Trachten

At the urging of my husband, my mother and my internist, I trudged into a Berkeley yoga studio three years ago. Yoga felt like a form of defeat—a poor substitute for the competitive tennis my back could no longer tolerate. And even if yoga could tighten my abs, I figured that I’d never look like Christy Turlington in her leotard. But yoga sneaked up on me, with gifts like a stronger back, looser hamstrings and an ability to breathe my way through anxiety. Within a few months of dipping into beginner’s yoga, I was regularly setting my alarm to get to an early morning class and considering the many others I might try.

“The richness of yoga is extraordinary in the Oakland-Berkeley area,” says Carolyn Brown, an instructor at Namaste and Mountain Yoga studios in Oakland. “There’s not only incredible diversity, but incredible quality as well.”

The East Bay is a land of yogis and yoginis, with more than 50 studios serving up everything from hot Bikram to cool Iyengar for people who are supremely fit to those with severe physical challenges. Whether in senior centers or YMCAs, upstart studios or established yoga centers, our community does yoga. If you’ve been left out of the loop so far, here’s a little yoga primer. And if you have already taken some yoga, perhaps now is the time (as the holidays approach and stress levels begin to mount) to step up your practice for peace of mind, body and spirit.

Yoga 101

Broadly defined, yoga is a series of physical poses (called asanas) that are usually combined with meditation and attention to the breath (pranayama). Often, but not always, yoga practitioners have a goal of greater self-knowledge and try to combine mental and spiritual elements with the poses and movement. In the United States, the term yoga generally refers to Hatha yoga, the physical part of the practice, which increases strength, flexibility and body awareness.

Although the name of a class offers some clues about what to expect, many instructors combine styles according to their own training and preferences. Brown, from Namaste, advocates sampling until you find the class that’s right for you. “Ultimately, it’s a combination of the style of the class and the teacher that creates the magic,” she says. And once you find that magic, she advises, stay with the class for a long while to deepen the practice and allow the teacher to get to know your body and personal goals.

Lining Up

Many classes are based in the tradition of Indian yoga master B.K.S. Iyengar, and include a mixture of active and restful poses. Richard Rosen of Piedmont Yoga recommends starting with a foundation in Iyengar, where the focus on physical alignment and proper body mechanics helps to refine each pose and prevent injuries. Faced with students of differing body types (for example, one overly flexible, the other tight and wiry), Donald Moyer, an instructor at The Yoga Room on College Avenue, notes that an Iyengar teacher would modify the postures to help the first student increase strength and the second, relaxation.

In an Iyengar class, students enter into poses safely and relax more fully by using props. A strap or tie eases the stretch toward the toes; a block placed on the floor lets you tip forward without falling; blankets and bolsters (large pillows) give support where it’s needed.

Inner Monkey

“Monkey Yoga Shala gets you into shape by getting you into shapes,” Tim Thompson says with a smile at his Oakland studio. Thompson created Isometric Monkey Yoga as a variation on the athletic, stamina-building practice of Ashtanga (sometimes called power yoga). Monkey yoga also incorporates elements of Vinyasa, or flow yoga, in which students move smoothly from one pose to the next on an inhale or exhale. Although Monkey Yoga is a strenuous, fast-moving class, Thompson offers modifications and props, typically not found in a strict Ashtanga practice. This style is a unique blend of yogas, taught only at Thompson’s studio.

About 30 students pour into the cozy Monkey Yoga Shala studio for an evening class on a typical fall Wednesday. A strand of colorful lights circles the perimeter of the room, set against walls painted in warm earth tones. Sleek, muscular, and astoundingly flexible, Thompson stands comfortably on one leg as he wraps the other one around his head. “If we put forth our best effort, we will be content,” he tells the class, “and only contentment leads to happiness.” Thompson insists on that best effort from his students. For an hour and a half, he takes them through a series of sun salutations, standing poses, seated twists and splits, then headstands and other types of upside-down poses, called inversions. “Notice your sensations,” he urges, “but daydreaming is not part of the yoga practice.” Thompson, who believes the biggest benefit of Monkey Yoga is improved concentration, provides nonstop directions and banter in a fast-paced alternation of Sanskrit and his own version of a Southern drawl: “Chaturanga, Down Dog, exhale, bend the knees, inhale all the way up.” He’s in constant motion, correcting postures, pushing on people’s hips, arms, legs. “No waiting between poses,” he insists. His students, mostly fit-looking 20- to 40-somethings, are sweating and only occasionally taking breaks. “Make yourself light,” he tells them. “Go up, not down. And be sure to enjoy every breath.”

Some Like It Hot

Another intense yoga workout is Bikram (sometimes called hot yoga). In a Bikram class, students complete 26 standard poses (each done twice) in a room kept at 105 degrees and 40 percent humidity. The extreme heat helps the body loosen up, stretch further and sweat like crazy. For Claire Morgan, who has been practicing Bikram up to six days a week for the past five years, the set routine allows the practice to become a meditation—there are no surprises. Morgan takes classes at the El Cerrito Bikram studio, where students craving more Bikram convinced the owner to start a 6 a.m. class. “I don’t think I would be in the minority to say it does become addicting,” notes Morgan. “It keeps me sane.”

Mind, Body, Heart

Anusara® yoga offers traditional postures combined with a taste of philosophy and meditation. Classes are typically centered on a particular theme that is reinforced by the poses and the teacher’s words. One Tuesday at Namaste studio in Oakland, Carolyn Brown begins an Anusara-inspired class by asking students to rearrange their usual line of mats into a horseshoe. The new formation heightens the sense of connection among the students and leads Brown to the day’s theme: the individual versus the collective. As students move into poses, Brown asks them to find a balance between reaching in to be part of the group and pulling away. Throughout the class, she refers to this balance on both an intellectual and an emotional level. “It’s a risk and also a privilege to start to connect with one another,” she tells her students as, through the poses, they experience the physical sensations of reaching out to others and then pulling inward.

“Anusara is very direct in integrating wisdom into the classes,” says Brown, who illuminates each day’s theme by sharing a brief reading or some of her own thoughts on the topic. “It’s an understanding that a powerful and efficient path of awakening is to join the mind, the body and the heart.”

A Gentle Touch

At 8:30 a.m., Sherry Stauder greets nearly 40 students for restorative yoga, the term for a softer, slower-paced practice, at the Berkeley YMCA. Although most in the room are seniors, Stauder says this type of class is for anyone, including those who need a release from stress. The pace is unhurried, with variations (easier and harder) offered for each pose. “Listen to your body,” Stauder repeats over and over in velvety tones. Students drape themselves over bolsters to open tight chest muscles and use ties or straps to increase their reach without strain. Caroline Sikorsky, age 80, notes, “For older people, stretching is critical. I’m convinced that I would have had a hip replacement by now if I hadn’t kept my hip flexible through regular yoga practice.”

Although a strictly restorative class would take place solely on the floor, Stauder includes standing postures because “they help with equilibrium and body awareness and will help prevent falls.” A man who entered the room using a cane begins the standing work on his knees. During the balance postures, he moves next to a wall, as do several others.

Stauder looks beyond the physical rewards of yoga. “Many students have told me they’re more mindful and centered and not as reactive to things around them,” she says. Practitioners also learn to leave their spinning thoughts behind by focusing on the breath, a wonderful antidote for stress or insomnia.

Yoga Mamas

Many women turn to yoga to develop increased strength and flexibility during pregnancy. In Melanie Green’s prenatal class at the Berkeley Yoga Center, women sit propped up on cushions and bolsters, hands resting on big bellies. Green asks them to check in with the baby, to breathe down to the baby. For a student experiencing back and leg pain, Green modifies the Downward Dog pose (with legs wider than usual and toes pointing inward instead of parallel) to decrease pressure on the sciatic nerve. Green takes the women through a series of poses, offering variations, props and hands-on help. “Where does the belly go in Pigeon pose?” she asks, suggesting different ways to sit comfortably in this posture where the body is perched on the floor over one bent knee and the other leg is stretched behind. As the group moves into Lifted Child pose, with hands and knees on the ground, Green notes that it’s a great posture for laboring and even for giving birth.

“So much of what we practice in yoga is helpful when we’re in the intense sensations of labor,” Green says. Rather than retracting against discomfort, she urges her students to stay with the sensation and bring breath into the area as a way to make the feeling more bearable.

As the session ends and students gather their props, prenatal graduates arrive, babes in tow. As the moms practice postnatal yoga, the babies sleep or watch, with Green often holding an infant in each arm. “I see these women come full circle,” she says. “It’s a gift to watch them go through this amazing journey.”

Child’s Play

Sarah McKinney, who teaches yoga to first- through sixth-graders at the Montessori Family School in El Cerrito, describes yoga for kids as “imaginative play.” McKinney starts class with a mantra and teaches postures through games. When they play Harry Potter, the child who is Harry waves a magic wand to turn the others from lions to butterflies to trees, all represented through yoga poses. With the older kids, McKinney incorporates games of yoga trivia and information about the body’s energy centers or chakras and countries where yoga is practiced.

Not only do the kids talk about doing yoga and meditation at home when they’re “sad or mad,” but McKinney herself has observed yoga as conflict resolution on the playground. Two girls in the midst of an argument opted instead for a quick Downward Dog, a pose that McKinney had encouraged for relieving agitation or impatience. In another unlikely moment, two younger children sat down in the midst of a spat to try some deep breathing and hand postures. These were “breathtaking moments,” says McKinney, who adds that teaching yoga to children has been a joyful and life-changing experience.

Finding Roots

Three years into my own yoga practice, I still can’t quite touch my toes, I still haven’t graduated past Baby Cobra, but I’m loving my pain-free back. During a recent class, I found myself standing on one foot in Tree pose, not without wobbles, but not without confidence either. Remembering well my early lurching and teetering attempts at this yoga standard, I couldn’t help but feel some pride, as well as some newfound muscles, as I rooted myself into the earth and stood tall.
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Rachel Trachten is a freelance journalist and copyeditor and a regular contributor to The Monthly.

 

Jürgen Moellers of Storyzon

Carolyn Brown, an instructor at Namaste and Mountain Yoga studios in Oakland, in Mermaid pose. Photo by Cathy Dalton.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andreas Jones, Louise Quao book

Mommy and me: Instructor Melanie Green helps a postnatal yoga student with Pigeon pose at the Berkeley Yoga Center. Photo by Vanessa Garcia.

 

 

 

Flex Time

Berkeley-Albany YMCA, 2001 Allston Way, Berkeley, (510) 848-9622; www.baymca.org

Berkeley Yoga Center, 2121 Bonar St., Studio C; 1250 Addison St., Berkeley, (510) 843-8784; www.berkeleyyoga.com

El Cerrito Bikram Yoga, 10078 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito, (510) 525-1441; www.elcerritoyoga.com

Fourth Street Yoga, 1809 Fourth St., Berkeley, (510) 845-9642; www.4thstreetyoga.com

Funky Door Yoga, 2567 Shattuck Ave., Berkeley, (510) 204-9642; www.funkydooryoga.com

Monkey Yoga Shala, 3215 Lakeshore Ave., Oakland, (510) 595-1330; www.monkeyyoga.com

Mountain Yoga, 2071 Antioch Court, Oakland, (510) 339-6421;
www.m-yoga.org

Namaste, 5416 College Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-9642; www.namasterockridge.com

Oakland YMCA, 2350 Broadway, Oakland, (510) 451-9622; oakland.ymcaeastbay.org

Piedmont Yoga Studio, 3966 Piedmont Ave., Oakland, (510) 652-3336; www.piedmontyoga.com

Rudramandir, 830 Bancroft Way, Berkeley, (510) 486-8700; www.rudramandir.com

Seventh Heaven, 2820 Seventh St., Berkeley, (510) 665-4300; www.7thheavenyoga.com

Yoga Kula, 1700 Shattuck Ave., 2nd floor, Berkeley, (510) 486-0264; www.yogakula.com

Yoga Mandala, 2807 Telegraph Ave., Berkeley, (510) 486-1989; www.yogamandalastudio.com

Yoga Movement Center, 1379 Locust St., Walnut Creek, (925) 938-9642; www.yoga-movement.com

The Yoga Room, 2640 College Ave., Berkeley, (510) 273-9273; www.yogaroomberkeley.com. This beloved yoga center, housed in the Julia Morgan building on College Avenue for 30 years, is being forced to move to another location by January 1. The Yoga Room is looking for a new 850- to 1,200-square-foot space somewhere in the East Bay. Please contact the studio if you have any leads.

Yoga Journal San Francisco Conference: The sixth annual Yoga Journal San Francisco Conference will be on Jan. 16-19 at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency. The conference features regular classes or all-day intensive yoga sessions with some of the nation’s top instructors. Speakers include Julia Butterfly Hill, Wes “Scoop” Nisker and Matthew Sanford, author of Presence in Your Body. For more information, go to www.yjevents.com/yjevents/sf09/ or call (800) 561-9398.