Yoga Finds Past Purpose
Minnesota's Hindu Temple, with its laid-back, spiritual approach, is bringing back a more traditional form of yoga at its classes.
By: Amelia Rayno, Star Tribune, Sept 14, 2010
|Mythili Chari demonstrated “downward-facing dog” as the students moved through yoga’s traditional “chaturanga,” something that most yoga classes teach. Photo by Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune|
Some of the pupils came in jeans, baggy dresses and T-shirts. The only sound was the purr of the wind curling through the cornfields that surrounded the holy place.
One of the students shivered, a reminder that there was no expectation that anyone was there to work up a sweat.
The inspiration came from within. And on this night about a dozen kids, middle-aged adults and teenagers came to try to tap that inner jackpot.
The temple's setting, where inside a white-robed priest performed chants and blessings for various young couples, was a far cry from what one might find at a typical American yoga studio, where soothing music is often played on a stereo and the outfits are pricey spandex.
But with the temple's traditional Indian approach staged more like a spiritual workshop than a cardio routine, the trendy practice became what it was originally intended to be: a spiritual guide to finding oneself.
"It was ... a little different," said Veronica Tews, a stay-at-home mom and first-time student at the temple, which offers yoga and meditation classes inside the community center the rest of the year. "It was neat to sort of get more into the spiritual side of it; I'm not used to that."
That's probably because as yoga has exploded with popularity and studios have popped up seemingly on every street corner, the emphasis is almost always the same: music, flow, sweat. The instructor might use a few Indian terms, and bow and say "Namaste" at the end, but otherwise, hard-core yogis say, the practice has become completely "Americanized" at most institutions.
"They don't know what yoga is, so they try to fit it into what they know," Aadil Palkhivala, founder of the Yoga Centers facility in Bellevue, Wash., said in a phone interview. "They call it yoga aerobics, yoga weight-lifting; it's so cute. In yoga we don't get upset, so we just smile and hope people will get it someday."
The numbers tell the story about yoga's growth: Americans increased spending on yoga by 84 percent from 2004 to 2008, and currently, about 7 percent of U.S. adults participate. While most yoga studios don't adhere exactly to ancient Indian forms, they do provide an effective and appealing alternative to typical aerobic classes. Those classes, traditional or not, have inspired many Americans to get more involved, or at least get in better shape, said Ben Wuest, 21, a yoga instructor at the Hindu Temple and at Moe Body Works.
Palkhivala, often referred to as "the grandfather of yoga" in the West because he helped popularize the practice in the 1980s, said he is partly responsible for what yoga has become. "My intention was to introduce physical process as bait, so they would be interested. But many of my pupils took off on their own, without waiting to learn the rest of the practice."
That practice, temple instructor Mythili (Mike) Chari said, is more about healing than working out; it's more about gaining spiritual strength for life than finding a sexy, sequenced core exercise.
"Your third chakra, your manipura, is your naval chakra, which is connected to the decisionmaking process," said Chari, demonstrating to the class how to manage one of the seven chakras, which are "force centers" on the body's surface. "If you do not have a good sense of this chakra, you will feel anger, shame and despair. You will have stomach ailments."
To correct these maladies, Chari instructed, one could perform the fish pose, in which the back arches, steadied by the arms, until the crown of the head rests on the floor. With that, the dozen pupils got into the position.
"It was never about beauty and being gorgeous," said Chari, who grew up in India and studied yoga at B.K.S. Iyengar's Prashanth Institute in Bangalore. "It was all about how you felt. It was physical therapy for the common man. It's a prescriptive, holistic approach to good living. Once you take care of your physical body, your mental and your service strength will come."
Nonetheless, this subculture has found that there is a much greater market for sexy exercises than holistic methods for better living.
"I like to use a lot of prayers to goddesses in my sessions," said Wuest, who studied Buddhism last year at monasteries in Japan. Most yoga centers don't do that, he said. "They provide a cookie-cutter version, but they can't be baking what the goddesses are.
"Here, I can be free."
Free to practice a tradition that has held deep spiritual meaning for centuries in the East, the way many feel it was meant to be practiced.
"Honestly, I do believe that people have the best of intentions," Palkhivala said. "They're trying their best. I just wish they would call it something different."