Going Deep

yoga is known for building strength and flexibility, but it goes deeper than that

A yoga instructor for five years and longtime practitioner of the ancient Indian discipline, Jackie Perkins couldn't find a yoga class to join when she moved to Medford in 1983.

Two years later, Perkins located an instructor at a "center for spiritual attainment," but considered the class so basic that she dropped out in favor of practicing at home.

The word "yoga" comes from the Sanskrit root "yuj," which means union. Yoga is the union of the body, mind, emotions and intellect.

About 2,000 years ago, the ancient philosopher and sage Patanjali described the eight limbs or petals of yoga in his treatise "Yoga Sutras of Patanjali." They are: yama (social ethics), niyama (personal discipline), asana (postures), pranayama (breath regulation), pratyahara (sensory withdrawal), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss or ultimate state of self-realization).

When most Westerners think of yoga, they think of its postures, or asana, combined with deep breathing, or pranayama. In fact, postures and deep breathing are part of the much larger practice of yoga. Asana and pranayama, however, are believed to be critical because mastery of the body leads to mastery of the mind. When the whole body and mind are involved in performing asana and pranayama, the practitioner learns to concentrate while, at the same time, creating physical health, vitality, strength and flexibility in both mind and body.

Through asana, students gain both physical health and also learn about the importance of the other seven limbs of yoga. The goal of yoga is to learn to bring awareness to all parts of the body at once, thus the mind becomes alert, attentive and sharp. Students learn to breathe smoothly, deeply and evenly, allowing prana (energy) to flow without obstruction. This allows the mind to become quiet, passive and receptive, promoting a meditative state of mind.

— Source: Rose Yoga Center

(www.roseyogacenter.com)

Two decades later, Perkins returned to yoga class — one of dozens now taught locally. The traditional Eastern philosophy has gained a foothold in the mainstream in recent years, and is now a popular form of exercise for body and mind.

In addition to the class Perkins attended through the city of Central Point's Parks and Recreation Department, no fewer than a half-dozen local studios are dedicated to yoga, and many more fitness-club instructors specialize in it.

"According to everything I read, it is more popular nationally and internationally than it has ever been," Perkins says.

Teaching yoga in a Denver suburb during the 1970s, Perkins witnessed the first wave of what Americans have come to know as yoga. The trend possibly was set in motion, she says, when The Beatles made news by studying transcendental meditation with an Indian guru. Perkins, now 78, also was drawn to yoga's meditative quality.

"I had never been good at sports ... and this was something at which I was successful," Perkins says. "It was just like coming home, almost."

A means of freeing her mind from the stress of parenting a hyperactive child, Perkins' yoga habit elicited malicious comments at her Methodist church and inspired anonymous proselytizers to send Bibles and religious tracts to her home. Perkins continued to hold yoga classes but, by the late 1970s, aerobics and Jazzercise, which appealed to young housewives, became the fad.

"Yoga goes in fads, and it isn't a fad," Perkins says.

After Perkins quit teaching, yoga remained a core pillar of her life, one she upheld at home, in part as therapy for osteoarthritis.

"It helped a great deal with keeping the inflammation down and keeping me more limber," she says.

Although Perkins saw yoga classes become fairly common in the Rogue Valley by the mid-1990s, she didn't want to commute to Ashland or Medford. By the time a class popped up near her Central Point home, Perkins had fallen and broken her wrist, an accident that pointed her back toward the path of yoga.

"I knew I had lost some of my flexibility," she says. "There were some poses I neglected."

Initially a bid to regain the flexibility of her youth, yoga has become 53-year-old Sue Acuff's new addiction since she began attending Medford's Rose Yoga Center a year and a half ago.

"It accommodates your abilities from the beginning," the Jacksonville resident says. "Anybody could do a lot of the poses."

Most in Acuff's class are in their 40s, but Rose owner Janet Langley, 45, says she teaches students in their 80s. The use of props, such as blocks and belts to modify yoga poses, keeps classes accessible for people of all ages and physical abilities, Langley says. Rose's approach to traditional Hatha yoga was developed decades ago by iconic Indian instructor B.K.S. Iyengar and is widely practiced around the world.

"Each pose in and of itself is kind of like a work of art," Langley says.

But Hatha — the form most widely recognized as yoga — isn't the only type practiced in the Rogue Valley. Bikram yoga, a regimen that pushes practitioners through 26 poses over an hour and a half spent in a room heated to 105 degrees, is a favorite of Ashland resident Don Sever.

"By the time you get out of there, you feel pretty invincible," Sever says.

Sever, 57, was introduced 20 years ago to the yoga style developed by yogi Bikram Choudhury. Sever practiced Bikram yoga five or six times per week for a solid year before abruptly stopping, for reasons he says he can't recall. But like other yoga acolytes who fall from the routine, Sever couldn't ignore his body's urge to return.

"I came back to it just because of failing health — not having any energy," he says.

After attending Bikram classes three to four times per week for the past year and a half, Sever says he's built strength in his back and stomach, or "core."

"My organs feel like they function better," Sever says. "I just feel stronger and healthier."

It's even improved his golf game, he adds.

"Yoga and golf are like the perfect mix," he says. "There's something about yoga ... and the focus of it. There's a real depth there."

While mental benefits of yoga can't be weighed in the same way as physical gains, practitioners say yoga engages them like no other form of exercise can.

"I was just amazed on the mind-body connection," says Tina Tonkin, owner of Medford's Chi Room Yoga and Fitness Studio. "It makes you more mindful; it puts you in the present moment."

Tonkin, 39, never planned to become a yogi. She was working as a personal trainer when a local gym asked her in 2000 to obtain certification in yoga.

"That's when yoga was really becoming big here in the valley," Tonkin recalls.

Tonkin completed coursework through YogaFit, started teaching yoga the next year and founded her own studio in 2006, an environment she favors for practicing yoga because it's free of a fitness club's distractions.

"I think yoga kind of found me," Tonkin says.

Teacher-certification programs, which range from six-week courses to three years of study, are as varied as the types of yoga. Given the likelihood that yoga will become only more popular, Langley says she's interested to see whether instructor certification becomes more stringent. Until it does, she encourages students to inquire about teachers' backgrounds. Certification aside, years of practicing yoga impart a wealth of knowledge, she says.

"Really, the classes are just the beginning," Langley says.

"You can continue learning yoga your whole life."


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