story and photos by GEORGE RINGWALD
Arcata-based Jim Athing [photo at right], who is a yoga teacher as well as a chiropractor, likes to tell you: "I came to town in 1979, and we had one yoga teacher. Things have sure changed since then."
Indeed, one hears figures of 1,000 to 2,000 yoga students in Humboldt County, stretching from Trinidad to Garberville. That sounds "pretty high," I suggest in an interview with Don Robertson, who is the mind, body and spirit coordinator for Arcata's HealthSPORT.
"No, I don't think so," Robertson responds. Certainly, the figures at HealthSPORT alone seem to bear him out. There are more than 30 yoga classes there every week.
"It's probably one of the most extraordinary yoga programs in a health club that I know of, because we offer so many varied classes, so many different disciplines, so many different styles of teaching. Every morning (beginning at the ungodly hour of 6:15), every afternoon, every weekend, every holiday we have yoga classes. Fifteen of us are teaching here."
From the minute you walk in, it's apparent that HealthSPORT is a no-nonsense business. People are working out on treadmills, and among other things offered for sale are bottles of vitamin water (whatever that may be) and yoga mats.
Robertson, 56, lightly bearded, balding, was wearing his black yoga outfit when we met. [photo at left] He's been teaching at HealthSPORT for the last two and a half years. Before that, he spent a year at the yoga ashram in Grass Valley. He remembers, too, his days in Haight Ashbury, the San Francisco neighborhood famous for the Summer of Love in 1967.
"I practiced yoga fairly intensively in and out all of my life," he notes. "Yoga was happening then already. It was where the Hari Krishna stuff started. Most of the yoga that's practiced here or anywhere in this country pretty much had its origin back in those days."
The emphasis in most yoga classes seems to be on the physical; specifically, on postures performed while sitting, standing or lying down.
Lori Snyder [photo below right], who teaches at the Community Yoga Center in Arcata, came here from Los Angeles, where she grew up. "I got started because I'm a dancer, and all my dance friends said, `Oh, you've got to take yoga!'" And she did.
She now teaches 10 yoga classes around town, and estimates her students number from 30 to 50. "Flow Yoga" and "Groove Yoga" are her specialties -- both of them, naturally, done to music.
"You cut through the illusion," as she puts it, "you get one step closer to not having to be reborn in the life cycle."
While that may sound a bit abstract, the fact is her yoga classes are physically oriented. She notes that yoga is getting backing now from doctors and physical therapists -- "because it's really great for the body, aside from the spiritual aspects." (As chiropractor Jim Athing says of yoga: "It's probably the best all-around spinal exercise that's out there.")
And like other yoga teachers, Snyder emphasizes breathing along with the physical postures. "The kind of breathing I teach," she says, "is designed to heat up the upper body."
Snyder is not into visions. "What I think about yoga in general," she says, "it's one of those things that comes enshrouded in a lot of mysticism. And I think a lot of people who come to class where they've never done that, and I don't know what they imagine -- channeling or chanting. But for the most part, especially at the beginning of classes, they're really focused on getting the body aligned correctly and using the poses that help physically to open the body, with the eventual idea that it will help spiritually and emotionally to open the mind and the heart as well."
Snyder suspects that many people think of yoga as something that's "new-agey." "But now," she adds, "it's very mainstream."
A new type of yoga that's catching on is Bikram (or "hot") yoga. A hot yoga class is much like any other yoga class with one overwhelming difference: it takes place in a room where the temperature is as high as 105 degrees. While that may sound uncomfortable, perhaps even unhealthy, enthusiasts say heat is optimal for yoga because it warms up muscles more quickly and allows for greater flexibility. It also increases circulation, bringing freshly oxygenated blood to every internal organ, and purifies the body through sweating, according to Naveena Bird, head instructor at the Humboldt branch of Bikram's Yoga College of India in Eureka.
Bikram yoga, Bird is quick to point out, is distinct not simply because of the heat; it also involves a series of 26 postures that, combined with the heat, gives the body the full treatment. "The advantage to Bikram yoga is that it reaches everything from head to toe, inside and out," she says. She adds that Bikram yoga is seeking to recreate the blistering conditions that prevail in Calcutta and other population centers on the Indian subcontinent. While Bikram yoga is particularly popular in southern California, it is also gaining adherents on the North Coast. Bird says she and another instructor teach a total of 16 classes a week to about 75 students.
Elsa Rubio [in title photo, top of page] , 47, a woman of mesmerizing visions and striking beauty, with long black hair, and wide, dark eyes, is the instructor of California Essence in Eureka, in an old Victorian house -- "very peaceful," as she notes, just down the street from the Carson mansion.
She remembers getting into yoga when she was 16. "I read an article in a magazine called Seventeen, -- a real girlie magazine -- and there was an article about yoga and meditation, and I just started on my own. I started meditating and doing yoga, and it had a powerful effect on me. I noticed a lot of synchronicity began to happen -- very, very amazing things that kind of happened. I started having a visualization to a piece of music, hard rock music. And it's like the things that I wanted suddenly appeared."
Pausing, she asks: "You understand what I'm saying?"
"I think so," I said, although I felt I was already in over my head. "What did she mean by `visualization'?" I wondered.
"OK," she says, as if carefully taking me by the hand through the labyrinth. "I was around 16, and it was during the Allende takeover in Chile. And there was all this news about the war going on there." (Way before Iraq of course.) I felt very badly for his people there, and so, in this visualization, I was sitting on this mountaintop, and I was in this eggshell, and this eggshell broke open and I was this beautiful butterfly, this shimmering creature that came out with all these beautiful wings.
"And I flew out over the earth, and I saw the suffering that was below. I had these magical powers, and all of a sudden all the children were lifting up out of their dismal situation of the war, and they all came up into the sky and were dancing in one big continuous circle. Children from all walks of life came into this circle. It was sad to go back to my shell [and] the children all had to go back to their situations. It was sad to go, but they were happy because I could see this peace inside them."
Rubio recalls her first experience of kundalini energy. "In yoga," she says, "we believe there is a latent energy that lies at the base of the spine -- chakra. And I had one of these experiences where it was like a flame went through my whole body. I came out of my meditation and I felt a little bit shaken for three days afterwards."
Yoga is "a wonderful system of preparing the body, strengthening the body. It's not a religion. It's like lines of energy, like meridian lines. An energy that is there inside your body."
We then moved on to more mundane matters, like Rubio's regularly scheduled yoga classes; there are at least four of them, including a post-natal class for moms and babies.
The California Essence Yoga class also has an 83-year-old, Phyllis Nunes [at left in photo, with Rubio], who has been a student of Rubio's for 10 years now.
"When I came here in '94," Nunes recalls, "I could never come down these steps." (The two steps down to the studio's carpeted floor from the entrance door.)
"And here I am 10 years later and still doing yoga," she goes on." Oh, the stretching! And the sitting in different postures we take! Oh, it just makes you feel so good, and when you come home, you can't stop. You're just wound up and want to go all day."
Rubio had another student of 87. "She said she always felt like running after the class, she felt so good," Rubio relates. "She doesn't come to class anymore, but she still walks and does yoga at home."
That apparently is not the longevity record, however, for yoga students.
Patricia Starr [in photo at right, with yoga student] , a Eureka yoga teacher, who leads about 10 classes a week -- at the Adorni Center, at Cal Courts and at the Senior Resource Center -- has one student who is 89. "She's wonderful," Starr says. "She likes yoga because it's for her body and her mind. She likes freedom."
Starr started doing yoga when she was 19 years old. "And that was 32 years ago -- giving away my age," she says with a laugh.
What prompted the yoga move? She considers it a moment, then laughs again and says, "I was going to say the Beatles."
Actually, the Beatles did play a part in a yoga renaissance.
As Starr tells it: "I think there were a lot of people that were interested in yoga back in the `60s -- people my age. It did come around through that whole cultural revolution that was happening then. And the Beatles really did bring a lot of yoga into the United States, where they studied with Maharishi. He came from India. He taught TM -- transcendental meditation. And the Beatles studied it.
"At that time," she goes on, "there was a sort of a trend toward yoga and meditation. It went kind of from drugs -- you know, the LSD and everything as a way to expand your mind. And then they started going, `Well, what else can we do?' You know, there's suddenly this spiritual awakening. And people realized they could meditate, they could do yoga to get into this other way of expanding the mind. It was kind of fascinating, so a lot of people who were my age -- hippies or whatever -- got into it.
"And now my generation, the baby boomers, we're all getting older, we're getting creakier, and suddenly the light bulb goes on: `Oh, I remember when I used to do yoga, and you know, I better start doing that again.'"
And what does yoga do for her?
"Well, yoga does keep me aware of what's going on in my body," she replies. "And what's going on in my emotions and my life. If I'm out of balance, I'll know it. It also teaches me a lot. For me, it's been a way to really make friends. And our generation really does want to stay young and vibrant. It's quite a task, you know.
"It's gotta be the same old thing -- the baby boomers get what they want," she concludes with another laugh.
What is her objective in doing yoga?
"My biggest goal is to find peace within myself," she says. "And that's what I hope that other people will find."
Starr, a slender figure, blue-eyed, with a bright smile and a catching laugh, tells me: "I raised three boys teaching yoga. I single-parented three boys teaching; I don't know how I did it, but it can be done. It's not easy. I mean, being self-employed is never easy, no matter what you do, I think."
She pauses. Then she adds: "I'm ready to get a real job one of these days."
Robyn Smith [photo at left] , a name well-known in yoga circles here, began taking yoga classes at the University of California, San Diego in 1988. From San Diego, she moved up to the Heartwood Institute in Garberville in 1991. That's where she began to teach yoga, and she moved up to her present locale, Arcata, in 1984.
"I wanted to be in a large community, but still not a big city," she explains.
She goes on: "I think I was attracted to yoga by the physical aspects."
In her resume, she refers to her "heart-centered teaching style."
"It means," she explained, "that in my classes I try to help people connect to the qualities of the heart, the metaphorical heart -- such as grace, gratitude, joy, freedom, things like that.
"A lot of yoga classes are very dry spiritually; they're very athletically oriented, very physical. And a lot of people are attracted to that. Because people are coming to yoga these days for a workout; you know, it's like a gym. I think people come to my classes for that as well, but I also know that they're also coming for the spiritual aspect. Because they feel better emotionally after a class; they feel a greater connection to themselves."
The spiritual aspect, I suggest, seems quite indefinite, and she allows that it could be anything. "What's spiritual to you," she says, "might be different from what spiritual is to me."
And what is spiritual to her?
"It feels like an understanding; it feels like an attitude of understanding connections. And that's the philosophy of yoga. I resonate with it. But we're not alone in the world; we're connected to some bigger energy. And we're all interconnected. That's what's spiritual to me: Having a perspective of trust and faith and support and connectedness. That's what yoga's about. You know, originally yoga wasn't about learning how to do a headstand. Yoga was about learning to connect with spirit, learning to open the body to be able to meditate."
Down in Garberville, Gayna Uransky opened the SoHum yoga class just a year ago, and already has six teachers and between 50 and 100 students. Her choice of names couldn't have been better. SoHum of course stands for Southern Humboldt. But, she tells me, sohum is also a Sanskrit mantra for "I am that."
Uransky has been teaching yoga for 32 years, ever since college.
"I'm sure you know about the obesity problem we have in America," she says. "I was a teacher in high school in Washington, D.C., and was getting out of shape. You know, we did a bad job of teaching students how to get in shape."
Looking around for ways to get in shape, she came on a natural food place and a yoga place.
This, she recalls, was in the early '70s, and she was in a commune -- "the best place to learn yoga."
Her yoga class includes "yoga for kids" -- from infancy to 9 or 10. They have to have an adult with them of course.
"Yoga is healthy," she says. "It's for body-building." But she also works in "a little bit of meditation."
Yoga, which in Sanskrit means "union," has been around at least since the second century B.C., according to an encyclopedic account, and possibly ages before that. The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali divide the practice of yoga into eight states -- including, for example, such ethics as restraint from vice, observance of purity and virtue, and removal of uncontrolled desires. (HealthSPORT's Robertson likens them to the biblical 10 commandments.)
Through these practices, it is said, "yogis acquire miraculous powers." The kicker, however, is that those powers "must ultimately be renounced to attain the highest state."
What a bummer, one might say.
"That's eastern philosophy," Arcata's Jim Athing chuckles. "The eastern spirituality, taken to its ultimate conclusion in terms of getting to know one's self, is beyond our normal experience. That's a little hard to grasp."
Some say that yoga is something of a fad. Whether or not it's just a passing one, only time will tell.
Longtime Journal contributor George Ringwald lives in Eureka.
© Copyright 2003, North Coast Journal, Inc.