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The power of Om: Yoga offers calm along with a good workout

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

From Tree Pose to Warrior to Downward Dog, yoga often seems both mysterious and strange to the uninitiated, bringing to mind images of people contorting their bodies into a variety of complicated positions.

And that’s before practitioners start throwing around terms such as “Hatha,” “Asana” and “Pranayama.”

“There’s a misconception that it’s very difficult and you have to sit there and say ‘Om’ and all this stuff,” said Whitney Messervy, a teacher and co-owner at Island Wave Yoga, a studio that opened in the Pawleys Island area just a few months ago.

“One of the things we try to explain to people, especially here in this studio, is that anybody can do yoga. You don’t have to know how to do yoga before you get here and we won’t ask you to do Om or get a tattoo of a multi-armed deity.”

She has men, women, children and senior citizens in her classes.

Despite the ever-growing popularity and mainstreaming of yoga, stereotypes are something just about anyone who touts the benefits of the discipline for physical, mental and spiritual well-being must contend with. But once they learn more about the benefits and practice of yoga, most people get hooked on it, said Tammy Appleton, a yoga instructor at Wicked Fitness.

One of Appleton’s students initially wrote off yoga as something she would never want to do, Appleton recalled.

“It took six months to convince her, but once she tried it, she loved it.”

The woman was a runner and found yoga increased her speed and flexibility.

“People see yoga and think you don’t get that much from it, but it’s a pretty intense workout and it brings a lot of benefits that are often overlooked,” Appleton said. “It helps with your joints, hips and ankles, high blood pressure, and the list just goes on.”

One of the biggest benefits is the discipline’s ability to create calm in a world where people rush from one activity to another, are constantly checking phones and e-mail, and multi-tasking is not only encouraged, but expected.

“Our tendency in this society is we don’t learn how to consciously relax,” said Lisa Rosof of Litchfield Counseling and Yoga. But yoga “gives people an opportunity to go inside.”

“It’s a relief from the external distractions that often kidnap our hearts,” she explained. “Our yoga practice teaches us how to be gentle and loving toward ourselves, especially when we recognize through reflection the way that we harm ourselves and others. Yoga is a practice of remembering mercy and forgiveness toward self and others.”

Rosof points out that yoga is also nonreligious, except in specific cases where the instructor brings their religion into the classes and advertises that fact. Christian yoga classes are an example.

“People who want to add a religious aspect to it would look for a teacher that compliments what they seek,” Rosof said. “As well, yoga classes that tend to be spiritual and nonreligious enhance and compliment individual religious beliefs.

“Yoga is not a deterrent, a competitor” to religion, she added. “Yoga is simply the union of the body, mind and spirit.”

Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, but only in the last couple of decades has it become a mainstream form of exercise and stress relief.

“People like it because it’s power building and body conditioning. You get a great workout from it, but people have also become more open to the meditative side of it,” said Appleton.

Messervy instructs her students to let go of everything outside the room as they ease into the physical practice of yoga.

“I feel like the one thing yoga offers people when they finally come to it that they don’t get from working out in a gym is that it emphasizes a mental release that pumping iron or running on a treadmill doesn’t,” she said. “I’m not saying people shouldn’t do those things, because they should,” but yoga addresses the needs of the whole self, not just the physical.

Yoga classes generally start with a few minutes of quiet, where students focus on breathing and centering. They end with Shavasana, also known as corpse pose, where the objective is to still the body and the mind. For some people, it’s their favorite pose after a long workout, but for others it’s the hardest pose to master, according to Rosof.

It’s difficult to keep the mind from wandering to all the things that need to be done before the day is through or problems that need to be solved.

And many aren’t comfortable lying down and resting while they’re awake.

“In my humble estimation, it’s the pose that this highly-technologized, instant gratification culture needs more than any,” Rosof said. “It’s a huge boon for this particular society, which is inundated with stressors.”

Shavasana used to be the hardest part of yoga for Messervy, she said. When she started practicing yoga, she was looking for a way to relieve stress and get fit again. Back then, she had a job that kept her sitting behind a desk all day.

“I was a skeptic,” she said. But she was convinced of the benefits of yoga as her mind started to clear and her hips stopped popping every time she walked up the steps.

She said she decided to start teaching yoga after observing how many people there were who felt just like she used to, who were focused only on getting through the day.

“There were way too many people who were young and already felt kind of worn out,” she recalled. She decided she needed to share what she had learned.

“It kind of sneaks up on you,” she said. “Yoga has a funny way of changing your life, like it did for me.”

One of the most inspiring things she has seen since she started yoga, she said, is people in their late 60s and 70s who flow through the poses.

“It caught me so off guard watching them do these things I wasn’t even doing five years ago,” said Messervy, who is 39. Her studio has “a really active group of older folks who come in with big smiles on their faces.”

Appleton’s oldest student is 82.

On the reverse end, Wicked Fitness is planning to start kids yoga classes in September for ages 6-8 and 9-12. Appleton’s 9-year-old son, Cody, will instruct. He has been practicing with Appleton practically since he was born.

Island Wave Yoga offers classes for families, allowing parents and kids to practice together.

Yoga helps kids focus and do better in school, Appleton said.

Rosof believes children should be introduced to yoga at age 4, she said.

“They learn to have quiet time, they learn the value of respect for their body and they start receiving the joy of having something that’s just for them,” she said.

If they don’t take to it at 4, it should be reintroduced in second grade, she added.

One explanation for the growing popularity of yoga is perhaps the variety of disciplines to choose from. Hot yoga (performed in a room with a very high temperature) and power yoga, provide a vigorous, sweaty workout.

Restorative yoga is gentler and uses supported poses and props to open the body, improve circulation, reduce muscle tension and lower blood pressure. It can be practiced even by those who are ill or recovering from illness or injury.

Iyengar yoga helps improve focus, while Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is client-centered and focuses on healing the mind and body as one.

For those who enjoy scenery while they execute yoga poses, Wicked Fitness and Island Wave Yoga offer classes on the beach.

Appleton teaches a yoga class at North Litchfield Beach shortly after sunrise on Saturdays. In the quiet of the morning, broken only by the waves rolling in, the calls of shorebirds and deep, rhythmic breathing, it’s particularly easy to see the appeal of yoga.

“There’s no music,” she said. “We just focus on being right next to the ocean.”

Messervy just started teaching a monthly evening class on Pawleys Island.

“The sand adds an extra bit of challenge, which is kind of fun,” she said.

Plus, the view of the ocean from one direction and the marsh from another definitely enhances the experience, she added.

“There are so many styles to yoga and so many different personalities and temperaments,” Rosof said. “People can try different styles and find one that fits them and where they are at that particular time.”

Often, practitioners end up blending parts of several styles, as Rosof has.

“It’s a very individual practice,” she said.

Her advice for getting started is for people to find an instructor they are comfortable with and who has a non-aggressive manner.

“The level of intensity in any yoga class should not be determined by the teacher, but by the individual practitioner, and the teacher needs to make sure that comes across,” Rosof said.

“You can do any style of yoga, and although form can be very helpful in the effectiveness, it’s not how it looks. It’s the way you do it and how you are with yourself when you do it that matters.”

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