By Leah Sottile

A to-do list with every item crossed out. A calming massage at a day spa. Driving on an open freeway on a bright summer day. There's a certain feeling of relaxation and wholeness that I get from these things -- and it best describes the way I've felt after every yoga class I've attended. My body is loose and my muscles are alert. My mind is clear and in balance. And each time, I am pleasantly confused about how the past hour of deep stretching and methodical breathing could be the answer to my hectic everyday life. But it's never enough to deter me.

I discovered yoga at about the time that I realized that my adolescent athleticism was a thing of the past. As a high school swimmer, soccer player and track athlete, working out meant structure and commitment in order to achieve a common goal in a final game or meet. But what was the final goal in yoga?

Katie Gehn, owner of City Yoga, says that the total equanimity of mind and body is the final goal that makes yoga most rewarding.

"A strong body and a weak mind is going to cause an imbalance. I think once you start getting a taste of that, you can start having more control over your everyday life," Gehn says.

For me, that balanced feeling was something that inspired me to eat healthier, live healthier, think clearly and focus on what was important. It's a practice that can make every pressing task a pleasant challenge and provide every day with a new sense of clarity.

Dangers of Yoga? -- With yoga studios popping up around Spokane and the rest of the country, Gehn says she thinks yoga has become so popular because people are bored by workouts centered around treadmills, free weights and Stair Masters.

"I think a lot of people are tired of the status quo. I think that people want what they are doing to have some meaning behind it," she says. "Not only are you getting your legs in shape and loosening your hips [during yoga], but you are also cultivating this connection with your mind and body."

Alison Rubin, director of Harmony Yoga, says that the only problem with the newly popularized yoga trend is that people can end up encountering a watered-down version of the ancient practice.

"There is an Americanized version of yoga that focuses on the physical. The spiritual aspects are not being transferred in this version of yoga," Rubin says. "When you're practicing yoga, you're focusing on the moment. You're developing a focused and quiet mind."

Both Gehn and Rubin emphasize that yoga is not about just the body or just the mind. Yoga doesn't simply aim to find a balance between body and mind, but to equalize both so that there is little difference between the two entities anymore.

Faddish yoga studios fail to convey to students that yoga is not a quick fix to unhealthy living, but must truly become a way of life in order to reap its positive effects. Unfortunately, attending one class every week will not provide the benefits that more frequent practice can supply.

"The way that you approach your yoga practice ends up being similar to the way you approach everything in your life," Gehn says.

Regular yoga practice allows for muscles to become long and healthy, enhances the functions of internal organs and relaxes the nervous system, among other things.

Weight loss is something that can be achieved through yoga, but only through practice four to five times per week, says Gehn. "The deeper you delve into your practice, the deeper your rewards," she says.

"I wouldn't take up yoga to lose weight, but rather to be toned, strong and flexible," Rubin says.

Both instructors agree that yoga can have a significant impact on one's health, but only when coupled with a healthy diet and aerobic exercise.

Different Faces of Yoga -- Although there are many forms of yoga, two of the most popular forms are called Astanga and Iyengar. Often described as "brothers," the two forms were derived by students who had studied Hatha Yoga under the same Yoga teacher. Sri. K. Pattahbi Jois came away with a faster, heat-producing practice called Astanga, while his fellow student, BKS Iyengar, came away with a more cerebral, alignment-focused practice.

The Iyengar form of yoga, which is taught at Harmony Yoga, focuses on three principles: correct body alignment, sequencing of poses (asanas) and timings, or holding poses for long periods of time.

Astanga Yoga means "eight-limbed yoga," and aims to find eight paths to happiness: ethical practices, self-observation, postures, breathing control, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation and a state of joy and peace. Astanga is practiced by engaging in a series of specific asanas, or poses.

Gehn, who teaches Astanga at City Yoga, says that Astanga most often appeals to former athletes who are used to training and toning their bodies. Astanga focuses on a specific series of postures. In both forms, each pose works a different part of the body, while it simultaneously cleanses the internal organs, strengthens the muscles and builds aerobic endurance by flowing quickly among poses.

Yoga Revisited -- Having only practiced Astanga Yoga in the past, I decided to try an Iyengar class. I dropped in on what I thought was a low-level class at Harmony Yoga. Unlike an Astanga class that focuses on a series of poses, this Iyengar class concentrated on certain types of poses -- backbends.

I instantly realized some of the core differences between Iyengar and Astanga when Nathan, the instructor, told all of the students to grab pillows, blankets, blocks, belts and chairs from a nearby stack of props.

Rubin says that usage of these items allows for all students to be able to achieve balance in each of the postures.

"One of the main emphases [of Iyengar] is practicing the poses with accurate alignment from day one as to not compromise the alignment of the pose," she says.

For two hours I had a crash course in some of Iyengar's basic principles, as well as trying some of the more advanced poses like headstands, handstands and backbends. I would later find out that the beginner's class I'd meant to attend was in a next-door studio, and that I spent my evening in the highest-level class offered at Harmony Yoga.

Tapping into my past yoga experiences, I tried out a basic Astanga class at City Yoga, and, yet again, found that same refreshing feeling from even the most basic practice of primary postures.

Gehn and Rubin both agree that there is a form of yoga that can be adapted for any age group of people -- men, women, children and the elderly. They say that if you approach the practice with an open mind, you can walk away with an experience of health and vitality throughout the body and come to understand the meaning of "ohm" in the mind.

Harmony Yoga

600 block of South Oak Street,

between Sixth and Seventh avenues (747-4430)

City Yoga

159 S. Lincoln St., Suite 151 (869-4121)

FSG Yoga

20 W. Main Ave. (218-3903)


Books -- Yoga: the Path to Holistic Health, by BKS Iyengar; Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, by BKS Iyengar; Yoga Mala, by Pattabhi Jois (1958; English translation, 1999.); Ashtanga Yoga as Taught by Shri K Pattabhi Jois, by Larry Schultz and Janice Gates.

Publication date: 1/29/04

American Original: The Life and Work of John James Audubon @ Northwest Museum of Arts & Culture

Tuesdays-Sundays, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Continues through Sept. 19
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