All in on Yoga

Years ago, Mike Cunningham was out on a limb, trimming a tree. When the limb broke, his safety rope failed him, and he fell several feet, shattering his left heel. In the 28 years since his fall, the now-57-year-old has led an active lifestyle, staying fit with weights and an elliptical, but still, without ankle cartilage, working out doesn’t always work out.

His wife of 21 years, Tina, also stays active, but the Cunninghams balance a busy schedule like most Evansville families: They bounce from work to their kids’ soccer games to board meetings and more. A year ago, the couple wanted an activity to do together that kept them healthy. The two thought yoga — an exercise that can be performed next to your significant other — might be perfect. After one class at Bikram-based hot yoga studio, Yoga 101 on the East Side, they were hooked — a surprising notion considering Bikram Choudhury, one of the leading hot-yoga experts, jokes that his yoga studios are “torture chambers.” The torture, Bikram says, is the high temperature at hot yoga studios, which reaches over 100 degrees and 50 percent humidity, but the heat allows muscles to stretch deeply with less difficulty while releasing metabolic waste and tension from the body through sweat.

For Tina, however, the heat is great. “It’s like a vacation during the day,” she says. For Mike, he found therapy, and his shattered heel is in less distress. “Try it for a week or a month,” he says, “and see if you don’t feel better.” They’ve found rehabilitation, stress relief, and exercise in their yoga practice, which motivates the couple to make the 7,000-year-old philosophy from India a priority.

Millions around the country do, too. In a recent 2008 yoga study released by the Yoga Journal, an estimated 15.8 million Americans practice yoga. Yoga styles in America came from Hatha yoga. Derived from the Sanskrit words for sun (ha) and moon (tha), the most popular yoga style is an active practice, filled with “opposite pairs.” Often, this is seen from opposing poses: one used to lengthen the spine, the other to round. While 80 percent of the American yoga population is between the ages of 18 and 55, this is an exercise for any age, and yoga practitioners have a breadth of styles to find an exercise suitable for their needs.

Evansville is no exception, but a few years ago, that was different, as Yoga 101 owner and instructor Nicole Tibbs remembers traveling to Louisville every weekend for a Bikram class. A lifelong athlete, Tibbs was drawn to how physically demanding yoga is and slightly captivated by the lore of Bikram’s methods. During the 1970s, Bikram became the yoga instructor for the Japanese Imperial family and claims he even healed then-soon-to-be Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka of stroke complications. His success expanded westward to Hawaii, where, based on a recommendation from Tanaka, a bed-ridden U.S. President Richard Nixon sought yoga therapy from Bikram to cure a vein obstruction and vessel inflammation in his left leg.

Whether fact or folklore, Tibbs has felt the therapeutic benefits of Bikram yoga for years, and she was inspired to bring this yoga style to Evansville. She trained with Bikram and began teaching in Evansville in 2001.

Evansville native Chris Crews, owner of Evansville Yoga Center, opened her studio three years ago after studying in Arizona. Her success at her West Side studio motivated her to open an East Side studio in August 2008. She’s currently training 14 new instructors, and the days of when yoga was an Evansville rarity are gone.

Western medical studies have shown yoga also heals its practitioners emotionally. The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York, released a study in 2007 revealing breast cancer patients who practiced yoga “showed improvements in quality of life; greater emotional, social, and spiritual well being; and less distress.” A German study showed women practicing yoga had significantly lower levels of cortisol — the “stress hormone” — than those who did not.[pagebreak]

If someone had told me yoga “cured Richard Nixon” or “lowered your stress hormones,” I would have dismissed yoga as New Age voodoo with a roll of my eyes. Instead, I was told it was great exercise and began practicing in 2006. Six months into my practices, I would feel angry during practice for no apparent reason, except as Yoga 101 instructor Kathy Freisinger explained to me, people carry scar tissue on their joints, especially their hips. Yoga releases the scar tissue, and with it, years of built-up anger and frustration. So when I read today about medical studies showing the emotional benefits of yoga, I say with a roll of my eyes, “Of course,” because it’s so obvious.

The Western medical studies are proving to hospitals and other healthcare facilities yoga plays an important role in community health. The Deaconess Resource Center has a three-hour yoga workshop, one Saturday a month, as a means to overcome depression. “Everything that has ever happened to you is logged in the tissues,” says Deaconess instructor Lucille York, who’s been practicing for more than 30 years. “Yoga is a way of releasing trauma and memories in the body.”

Tibbs’s style is more relaxed and fun. While most yoga practitioners often play rhythmic chantings of ambient music, Tibbs sometimes breaks away from that, ushering in more popular (though still soothing) music like Jack Johnson. Just because the atmosphere is relaxed doesn’t mean you can. Tibbs and the other Yoga 101 instructors push you without exceeding your physical limitations. “If we can be joyful and fun in a place that can be intense,” Tibbs says, “it can be a catalyst into the rest of our lives.”

From the yoga disciplines of Bikram to Ananda to Forrest, it’s clear the numerous yoga styles in Evansville rehabilitate injuries and strengthen muscles and joints. Crossover principles exist among the different styles, a fact Crews knows well. A Kripalu expert taught Crews, but Crews practices a more general Hatha style at her studios. In fact, you might not even notice any differences between yoga styles, says Crews, because whether you want stress relief, exercise, or inner peace, “ultimately these practices reach your desired goal.” Still, understanding the subtle nuances of yoga styles can help you choose a class that works best for you.

What a Workout
To studious practitioners, Ashtanga is a fast-paced practice that combines poses to create a series of heart-pumping exercises, building strength and flexibility. For the fitness buffs, it’s a workout resembling power yoga — a style developed to give yoga a Western touch.

Restorative Resources
Bikram is a series of 26 sequential poses performed in a hot, humid room, designed to develop, strengthen, and tone muscles. The sequence also builds cardiac health and fights obesity, insomnia, arthritis, diabetes, and more.

Developed by yogi Ana Forrest, Forrest is intense and builds incredible strength and flexibility through a series of arm balances and standing poses. This yoga is also mentally beneficial. Once you remove body tension, instructors help you to replace the tension with positive thoughts.

Spiritual Seekers
Ananda is an introspective style that’s all about you, though not necessarily about you and the perfectly toned body. This style’s focus is self-awareness. The motto is silent affirmations move toward higher, spiritual awareness. At the Bodyworks Massage Institute in Evansville, the Ananda practice “is not as much focus on perfect alignment of the physical body, but more a meditative, heart-centered practice of simple movement and postures that will encourage one to open, relax, and feel more at peace with oneself and others,” says instructor Cecile Martin.

Kripalu developed during the 1970s when yogi Amrit Desai discovered his body flowed through yoga poses without direction from his mind. The style — touted as a path to self-discovery — is designed to release mental control of the body during a posture practice and enter meditation.

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