Yoga’s variance helps bodies stretch out, work out and chill out

I used to think yoga wasn’t for me because I can’t touch my toes. Can’t even come close.

But it turns out that just as people come in all shapes and sizes and levels of bendiness, yoga, too, is anything but one-size-fits-all.

Some classes are set to music, while others see value in silence. In one class, you might move quickly from one pose to another, but other styles of yoga get you into a pose and have you stay a while.

What all kinds of yoga have in common are the benefits.

“Originally people thought of yoga as a cult or a religion, or just sitting, meditating,” said Raleigh yoga instructor Roxane Banville. “Yoga is so much more than that. It’s connecting your mind with the body, but it’s the letting go, it’s the exercise, it’s all the benefits that it gives you – physical, emotional, medical, spiritual.”

Yoga practitioners gain flexibility and strength, of course, but they also find it relieves stress, improves sleep, eases back pain and other problems and can even enhance athletic training.

You can find many kinds of yoga in studios across the Triangle, and there’s no need for a beginner to be shy.

Many studios offer the first class free or for a low cost. For people who want to sample many different studios and yoga types, there’s the Passport to Prana (, a card that for one $30 fee lets you take one class at each participating studio – currently, there are 30 studios on board in the Triangle, said Banville, who is a local coordinator for the program.

Shopping around is important, because the right fit of style and teacher can really make or break your yoga experience. It can also help keep you safe.

I was curious to know more about yoga myself, so I decided to put on some yoga pants and find out.

Vinyasa yoga

Vinyasa yoga, put simply, is “meditation in motion.”

That’s how Nicole Nichols, owner of Republic of Yoga in Cary, describes it.

“Vinyasa involves a sequence of events that are combined with breath and movement,” she told me. “Your movement is continuous and never stops, and the inhale is connected to the exhale so the breathing is seamless.”

Even when a sequence is challenging to your strength or balance (or both!), she said, “the idea is to keep the breath the same, even and steady throughout the duration of the practice regardless of the level of challenge.”

In the 90-minute “Slow Flow” class I took, we moved from pose to pose, with Nichols talking us through both the movements and the breathing. Toward the end of class, the movement slowed down a bit, leading to a meditation session.

Frankly, this was the part I was most worried about. I have a brain that never shuts up. But after a while, the meditation actually started to work. I can’t say I reached enlightenment, but then again that’s not the goal.

“Our minds are now being trained to multitask at such a high rate that it’s very hard to focus anymore,” Nichols said. “I think in doing that, we miss a lot of the beauty of the present moment. So meditation is just a way to take a few minutes out of your day, to go off of auto-pilot and just tune in and just listen to yourself.”

Alignment yoga

I am not a patient person.

So I wasn’t sure how I’d do in an alignment-based yoga class, where the point is to get the poses just right and then stay in them for a long time. Up to two minutes sometimes, which doesn’t sound like much until you’re standing on one foot, legs deeply bent and torso twisted to one side, staring at a spot on the wall to hold your balance.

But I also believe in doing things right, and that’s why alignment yoga takes such a methodical approach.

B.K.S. Iyengar developed the yoga style that now bears his name in India in the 1960s, with an emphasis on alignment, careful sequencing of poses and the use of props.

Jane Barrett of Raleigh Yoga Center, whose training has been from Iyengar teachers, brings that focus to her classes. On a stormy Friday morning, Barrett led students through a sequence of twisting poses (other classes focus on other movements, such as splits or handstands). We used straps to deepen leg stretches, blocks to keep our backs straight and arms firmly planted during deep lunges and bolsters (a firm rectangular cushion) to enable some gentle back bends.

Through it all, Barrett offered corrections to the class and, as needed, to individuals. The adjustments seemed small – straightening a leg or moving a hip just a little bit that way – but made a big difference in how the pose felt.

“Alignment is really important for the safety and the structure of the pose,” Barrett said. “It’s like creating a building. If your foundation is solid and level, that building is safe, sturdy, you can go right up to the top floor.”

It wasn’t easy to stay in some of those poses for a long time. My legs shook from fatigue, and I struggled to keep my breathing calm. But with all that time to think, and to really feel the pose, I got tuned in to my body in a way that rarely happens in everyday life. And that was a feeling I wasn’t so inclined to rush out of.

Hot yoga

While I wasn’t exactly huffing and puffing through the classes I took, I most certainly did work up a sweat at each one. And in a hot yoga class, that’s the whole point.

The idea of doing yoga in a hot room was pioneered in the 1970s by Bikram Choudhury, but since then the practice has evolved in many directions, and these days not all hot yoga is Bikram yoga. But it is all hot. Like around 100 degrees hot.

“Beginners tend to push too hard and not hear all the instructions going around the room from the teacher,” said Monica Shannon, owner of Open Door Yoga in Raleigh. So Bikram introduced heat to keep people safe, and the idea caught on.

“You’re warmer, so you’re going to be a little more flexible and a little looser, which means that when you kind of push into areas that are tight or restricted, or let’s say you push really hard in a posture with bad alignment, you’re less likely to irritate the muscle fibers because they’re soft and pliable,” said Shannon, whose style is different from Bikram’s in both sequence and temperature.

Open Door’s studio is 90 degrees on one side and 105 degrees on the other. There were maybe a few seconds of “ahhhh” when I placed my mat in the middle of the room after coming in from a chilly day outside, but before long I started to panic a little. Because 100 feels really hot in the middle of winter. And knowing you’re in for an hour and a half of some pretty serious stretching and bending in that heat is enough to make you sweat before you even start moving.

Within 10 minutes of starting class, I was drenched. Sweat rolled from my forehead, down my nose, and dripped onto the towel on top of my mat. It soaked my shirt and made my feet slippery – which sounds pretty miserable, I realize, and yeah, it was uncomfortable at times. And certainly stinky. But after a while, I didn’t notice so much.

It depends on you

In each of the classes I sampled, there were high points (like that one time I got just a little closer to touching my toes than I’ve ever gotten before) and low points (all those times I heard “right leg” and promptly moved my left). But I came out of each class feeling great, physically and mentally, and empowered to try again. Because it’s not about what you do “right” or “wrong,” or whether you can keep up with the class or whether maybe you need to sit out a few poses toward the end. It’s about how you feel, during and after. And that all depends on you.

“I think as long as people remember that the idea is to breathe, and relax, and do what you can, they’re going to come out feeling more relaxed, they’re going to come out feeling a lot better, more blissful,” Banville said. “They’re going to sleep better that night.”


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