When you think of yoga does your mind go to people effortlessly placing their foot behind their heads while looking fabulous in yoga clothing? Do you think, not me as I am too ______? As a middle-aged person who does not have the stereo-typical body of a yoga practitioner, I can tell you that yoga is so much more. Before I share my interview with yoga instructor Betsy Barry, I thought I would give a bit of history about yoga.
Legend has it that Shiva was the original yogi. Shiva had seven disciples known as rishis who founded the spiritual traditions. The term “yoga” is Sanskrit whose root word implies “union.” This term made its first appearance in the ancient and sacred texts called the Vedas. Between 400 BC and 200 CE, The Bhagavad Gita (“the song of the lord”) was written. This is a poem whose setting is on a battlefield, and is a metaphor for the battles within our brains. This was the first time a spiritual text says that anyone can be enlightened, not just a chosen few.
Swami Vivekananda left India in 1893 for the United States. “His guru, Sri Ramakrishna said that the world's religions "are but various phases of one eternal religion" and that spiritual essence could be transmitted from one person to another.” Swami Vivekananda wanted to bring this idea to the United States. The Swami gave a speech at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago where he was given a standing ovation. Yoga popularity took off from there. In 1924 the U.S. put a quota on immigration from India so that U.S. citizens wishing to know more about yoga had to travel to India. A man by the name of Theos Bernard took such a trip. Upon his return in 1947, he wrote, Hatha Yoga: The Report of a Personal Experience. It became a major source of information and is still available today.
Betsy Barry, owner and director of Franklin Yoga and Wellness in Franklin, MA, defines yoga as “ a place for one to practice the “pause” - inviting space in between when life happens and one reacts to it.” Betsy has been practicing yoga for eighteen years but says yoga wasn’t something she was drawn to until a friend dragged her to a class. In her words, “it was love at first asana.” In her classes, she invites and encourages her students to find those spaces while taking them gently through poses designed to open up the body.
When I was looking for a yoga studio, I wanted one where I felt comfortable and trusted the instructor. My current goal is to build strength, flexibility, and balance in my muscles; a long-term goal as I age. Betsy says that each person who comes to yoga is looking for something different such as stress-reduction, strength-building, and peace of mind. She firmly believes that yoga is for everyone. She suggests that people seeking a yoga instructor and studio should visit two or three different classes to find the practice and instructor that speaks to them. The studio and class should be a place of non-judgement, peace, and quiet whether it is a beginner class or a physically challenging one. I attend Franklin Yoga and Wellness and have found such a place there.
For those who are looking to increase their yoga knowledge and who wish to become an instructor, a basic training program is about 200 hours of practice. Betsy says that yoga is called a practice for a reason. While yoga is a physical practice here in the West, it is actually a small piece of the science of yoga. Betsy also says that whether you wish to practice yoga or continue on towards becoming an instructor, yoga connects the different parts of a person’s life with techniques that are numerous and allows an individual to feel more at ease.
I attend a beginner’s yoga class and find that the hour goes by incredibly fast. My brain slows down without my being aware (no small feat). I am relaxed, a little tired, and my body feels more fluid by the end of that hour. As we move through the poses, our instructor offers us opportunities to both widen our perspective while focusing on our own goals. We are given gentle food-for-thought. Another focus and reframing for our busy minds. While I was unable to attend the yoga classes that were offered in conjunction with the book How Yoga Works, I was given the opportunity to join the discussion around the book. It is a lovely story that demonstrates how yoga can be a part of your mind, body, and spirit. The yoga poses help our bodies while opening our thoughts to how to help others. When we help others, we help ourselves by the feeling of joy that comes with it.
I was that person who thought that yoga was not for me, but finding the right class, the right instructor, and making the time to attend is the key to success. It is also important to go to a class expecting that you may not be able to do everything. Your instructor can offer modifications if you have physical limitations. Some think that yoga is “not a workout.” It may not be cardio, but I assure you that the muscles get strength training, stretching, and movement in such a way that you know you have received a workout. If you are a person who wants to begin an exercise program, this is a great place to start. Why not try yoga? It may not be what you think.
How Yoga Really Works, by Geshe Michael Roach, Diamond Cutter Press, 2004