By Genevieve Morgan
Illustration by Jennifer Judd-McGee
Over the past decade, Maine has seen a yoga explosion that would impress even Patanjali, the great Hindu yogi of 2,000 years ago.
Chances are you’ve seen them in a coffee shop near you: smiling, Lycra-clad yogis lugging thin mats under their arms. Because of its growing popularity, some may dismiss yoga as a yet another fitness craze—but don’t, or you’ll miss out on one of the more profound health-improving and life-affirming practices that anyone can do.
Yoga is practically everywhere today, but this wasn’t always the case. When I was a student at Bowdoin College in the late 1980s, I remember hearing about the occasional yoga class being offered in a church basement or school gym somewhere. Yet now I suspect that pretty much every Maine town with a population of more than a hundred has yoga classes being offered through a community center, YMCA, fitness club, yoga studio, or local instructor. And many of the state’s larger towns—such as York, Belfast, and Rockland—boast dedicated studios offering a variety of classes, workshops, and in some cases, 200-hour teacher training and certification programs. In Portland alone, there are more than ten independent yoga studios and myriad fitness centers and programs that provide daily yoga classes.
The international yoga and activewear company Lululemon Athletica opened a showroom last year on Milk Street—a move the international franchise makes only when it has identified a serious retail market for its products. As Shannon Fallon, local yoga instructor and Lululemon ambassador, says, “Lulu is interested in coming into a community where they can meet the needs of a committed clientele. That’s why they do so much research and provide so much support to local instructors and studios. They want to be a resource for an ongoing conversation.”
Yoga’s growth in Maine is nothing short of mind blowing. And there’s a good reason for it: yoga has been attracting devotees (including me) for millennia because, both literally and figuratively, it takes the weight off. The practice not only makes you more fit, but it reduces stress and dangles the tantalizing promise of enlightenment. The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word yuj, which means “to yoke.” Its purpose is to marry the body and mind in ways that will channel your higher self. Most of the yoga practiced in the United States is Hatha yoga, which emphasizes physical elements of the practice, as opposed to Raja yoga, which focuses on consciousness training. In Hatha yoga, active postures (called asanas) teach us to use physical energy to get in touch with our bodies and spiritual selves. Depending on the teacher, a class may combine asana with pranayama (breath work), dharana (focused attention), and/or dhyana (meditation). The sum of these practices, in its simplest expression, helps to free us from the emotional turmoil that keeps us unhappy, unhealthy, and sadly out of touch with our divine awesomeness.
If your New Age alarms are going off, let me make this clear: a regular asana practice will transform your body. Before I began practicing yoga, I tended toward the jiggly and pearshaped. Today, I can happily report that I have become, more or less, a firm rectangle. At the very least, regular yoga practice will make you appreciate the body you have, while making it stronger and more flexible. A robust practice will tone muscle and redistribute body mass. Yoga will also help manage other issues, including chronic pain, depression, and other mood disorders. A recent Boston University study showed that yoga has a more positive eff ect on mood and anxiety than walking, since it boosts the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain (GABA is informally known as “nature’s Xanax”).
To practice yoga, all that’s required is the ability to walk and breathe. An open mind, a little self-discipline, and a willingness to try new things are also helpful. If you are new to the practice or recovering from an injury, check in first with your health care provider, and start with a beginner or fundamentals class. Ashtanga, Power Yoga, and Vinyasa Flow (see descriptions below) are vigorous, athletic practices that are popular right now, but they won’t provide maximum benefits unless you learn proper alignment first. Keep in mind that, when it comes to yoga, everyone is a perpetual student with something to learn (that’s why it’s called a practice), and slower classes can provide just as many benefits over the long term.
When you enter the world of yoga, you will find many newly minted instructors on the scene. Some of these teachers are excellent and well trained; others…not so much. So ask for recommendations from more experienced practitioners, and choose carefully. Above all, always take care of yourself by following one of yoga’s few mandates: listen to your body. If you are in a class and something doesn’t feel right, stop doing it. Most students begin their yoga journey by experimenting with classes at a local studio before finding a teacher or style they love. You can also find a certified teacher near you by visiting the websites listed below. If you are unsure where to begin or how to move beyond the practice you know, the following descriptions of yoga styles will point you in the right direction.
Anusara and Anusara-inspired:
A playful, heart-centered practice that moves through a progressive sequence of asanas. Full Anusara certification takes several years to achieve, and instructors that have not completed the entire training program use the term Anusara-inspired.
Ashtanga Vinyasa: While similar to Anusara, this practice has a more physically demanding style. Variations include Vinyasa Flow, Power Yoga, and Heated Vinyasa, which takes place in a studio that has been heated to between 80 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit—so make sure you show up prepared to sweat profusely!
Bikram: This style moves practitioners through a series of 26 yoga postures designed to warm, stretch, and energize muscles, ligaments, and tendons—all in a specifi c order. It’s practiced in a room heated to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (hot!).
Hatha: All asanas are part of the system of hatha yoga, so many studios and gyms offer general yoga classes they call Hatha. These are usually gentle or restorative classes, but they can also be quite advanced.
Iiyengar/Restorative: A gentle practice focused on balancing every cell and fiber of the body through asana and breath. The frequent use of props helps the student achieve perfect alignment in a relaxed, physically comfortable way.
Kripalu: This practice promotes self-compassion and uses sustained postures and focused breath to elicit deep emotional responses. Students learn to practice at their own pace, allowing it to unfold naturally.
Kundalini: A gentle, more spiritual style that uses breath, meditation, chanting, and movement to activate the chakras (energy centers along the spine) by releasing primal energy at the base of the spine and moving it upward to the crown of the head.
Yin Yoga: This style targets the body’s connective tissues, rather than the muscles or bones. It’s a balancing practice that moves from more passive (yin) through more active (yang) styles. Long holds can last as long as twenty minutes, which make Yin a challenging but deeply relaxing practice.