When Alison Rubin and her husband moved their young family to Spokane from Los Angeles in the early 1980s, she remembers there was only one yoga studio serving all of the Inland Northwest.
Even in Southern California, yoga was at that time considered a hippie thing — something underground and alternative, Rubin recalls. Nothing like what the ancient practice has become now: A multibillion-dollar industry supported by an estimated 20 million Americans, the majority of them women.
Rubin, who owns Harmony Yoga studio in Spokane, has taught yoga for more than 30 years. In that time she's seen people's perceptions of the practice change drastically.
"I started teaching at the Spokane Club, and at that point yoga was so underground I had to call it power stretching, because when I listed it as yoga no one showed up," she remembers. "Gradually I was able to change the name over the years to yoga, and then I opened up a yoga studio and started to teach classes, and they got really popular."
Since those early days of yoga in the U.S., the practice has more recently branched out to include sessions taught in intensely heated rooms (hot yoga or Bikram-style yoga), on standup paddleboards in the water, using acrobatic silks (aerial yoga) and in social settings that offer beer or wine following a workout. Years ago, Rubin even taught a class to a local nudist colony, and has heard of classes pairing cannabis with poses (ganja yoga). While it's hard to predict whether these trendy twists will last, she does believe the basic practices and philosophy of yoga will endure.
"Whatever you can imagine, it's going to be happening," she says.
Spokane yoga teacher Lily Fife has taught a variety of yoga classes across Spokane for a little over a year now as a certified instructor, with a special focus on what's called holy yoga. About two years ago she was introduced to the yoga practice that melds Christian spirituality with strength- and flexibility-focused poses, slowed breathing and relaxation of the mind.
"[Holy yoga] was a new way of connecting in my yoga practice. It had always been a place for reflection and worship and connecting with God," Fife says. She usually offers a prayer before and after class at the Training Ground on Spokane's South Hill, and as she leads participants through poses, Fife also shares teachings from the scripture she's chosen to incorporate into the session.
Fife also teaches aerial yoga classes at The Training Ground (although she's taking a break now while she's pregnant). Aerial yoga involves using a looped fabric suspended from the ceiling — it's the same kind of aerial silk fabric used by circus acrobats — to help support and hold various poses. Fife explains that the silk is more like a prop, just like a stretching strap, foam block or bolster cushion might be used in other types of yoga.
"It really helps with alignment and balance and poses," she explains. "It also helps build core and shoulder strength, and it's really playful because a lot of people haven't been upside down or spun around since childhood."
Yoga's quiet and meditative atmosphere doesn't typically encourage socialization, and many instructors see their students come and go without speaking a word to anyone else. To lighten the mood, some teachers are offering yoga classes that include a post-workout refresher. One Saturday a month at Perry Street Brewing, Fife teaches "Beer Flow Yoga." Sessions are beginner-friendly, in that she teaches a basic yoga flow, which involves slowly transitioning from one pose into another. The $15 class fee allows attendees to also enjoy a pint of beer while they mingle after class.
Similarly, Barrister Winery in downtown Spokane hosts a weekly "Class and a Glass" yoga session on Monday nights ($15; starts at 5:30 pm) that encourages participants to enjoy a glass of wine as they relax and socialize with fellow yogis after the hour-long class.
After a recent morning yoga session at Perry Street attended by about two dozen people, participants roll up their mats and help move the brewery tables back out from around the walls. Conversation echoes from the cement floors as women and men in workout wear gather around the bar to enjoy a pint before heading out to enjoy the rest of their weekend.
"People still have some preconceived notions about what yoga is," Fife says. "At Perry, people might think, 'Oh it's at a brewery and it's chill,' and women bring their boyfriends. I don't see that as much at other yoga places. The beer is part of it, too, but they also experienced something that felt good and right. That is my hope — to experience yoga and maybe start to practice at some point." ♦