More than a good stretch

In Chico as elsewhere the ancient practice of yoga has gone mainstream

Andrew Gere holds the “standing bow” pose in the studio at In Motion Fitness, where he teaches Bikram Yoga.

Andrew Gere holds the “standing bow” pose in the studio at In Motion Fitness, where he teaches Bikram Yoga.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

Find local classes:
Beyond Fitness:
Bikram Yoga Chico:
Blue Lotus Yoga & Wellness:
Chico Sports Club:
In Motion Fitness:

When I moved to Chico in the early 1990s, there was no yoga studio in town, yoga was not part of Chico State University’s curriculum, and Chico Sports Club offered only one class per week. How things have changed.

Chico now has at least three yoga studios (Blue Lotus Yoga & Wellness, Bikram Yoga Chico and Positive-I, and perhaps others I don’t know about), yoga classes for credit as well as recreation at Chico State, and dozens of classes per week at Chico Sports Club, In Motion Fitness and Fit One Athletic Club.

In Motion Fitness advertises 11 different “styles” of yoga!

Yoga classes are taught at some martial-arts studios, and several yoga teachers offer private classes. Beginning May 8, yoga classes will be available on Main Street because Ziva Yoga Studio is opening adjacent to Ziva Yoga Essentials, the already-established apparel and equipment shop.

Yoga went mainstream some time ago, especially in California, and Chico is certainly no exception. Let’s face it, if you haven’t been to a yoga class yet, you’re fast becoming a part of the minority.

More and more these days, yoga is being portrayed primarily as a form of exercise, to the point now where most people would be at a loss to say much more about it. Even experienced practitioners can be forgiven for having only a vague idea about what yoga is. When asked, “What is yoga?” their answers almost always begin and end with descriptions of some form or another of physical techniques and practices.

As one begins to investigate yoga, however, it becomes clear that it is much more than stretches, exercises and relaxation techniques. Yoga is a remarkable system for physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Indeed, it offers no less than a holistic “way of living.”

But if you have even greater aspirations, you’re in luck! In its highest sense yoga is a path to the ultimate transcendental state of self-realization, or cosmic consciousness, or enlightenment.

Many yoga practitioners get a glimpse of the possibilities of yoga when they least expect it. In my own case, an unforgettable experience happened after I rehabilitated a painful and atrophied left hip through regular practice over a period of many months.

One day during the relaxation at the end of a practice, I lay on my yoga mat with my eyes closed and suddenly remembered a quotation that I had read: “Yoga makes us realize that we cannot pluck a flower without disturbing a star.” Although I intellectually understood this metaphor when I first encountered it, I began at that moment actually to experience the unity of all creation. I felt that my being had spread out to encompass the entire universe. Tears of gratitude welled up in my eyes—for this transcendental experience as well as my physical recovery. I knew then that I would be practicing yoga for the rest of my life.

The term “yoga” comes from the ancient Sanskrit language. Its root, yuj, means “to yoke together.” The English word “union” is closely related. The union referred to in yoga is the reunion of the worldly self with the universal or higher self, or higher consciousness.

Yoga can be described as “the science and art of accelerating the process and progress towards liberation [from the cycle of birth and death].” But a true definition of yoga is impossible to convey with language in any literal sense. Only the serious yoga practitioner can come to experience this science beyond all words.

Most people know yoga as a series of physical poses or stretches designed to relax and make fit the body. But that form of yoga, called Hatha Yoga, is just one of several forms of the spiritual practice of yoga.

The yoga of selfless action (Karma), the yoga of devotion (Bhakti), and the yoga of wisdom (Jnana) are focused on in the sacred Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita (ca. 300 B.C.E.). The first mention of a physical position does not occur until around 150 B.C.E. in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

With his seminal 1966 book <i>Light on Yoga</i>, B.K.S. Iyengar did more to acquaint Westerners with yoga than anyone before him. Today, at 91, he still practices regularly and is as limber as a 20-year-old.

Center Photo by Jake Clennell

Patanjali’s yoga is known as Raja Yoga, sometimes called Ashtanga Yoga, or Eight-Limbed Yoga. The Eight Limbs are a progressive series of steps or disciplines that purify the body and mind, ultimately leading the yogi to enlightenment through meditation.

Hatha Yoga can be thought of as a subcategory of Raja Yoga, since it focuses on two of the eight steps: asanas (poses or postures) and pranayama (breath control). Together they are intended primarily to restore and maintain a practitioner’s well-being and improve the body’s flexibility and vitality. By balancing and harmonizing body, mind and emotions, asanas allow us to withdraw from the world and find a quiet space within.

In other words, they facilitate meditation, which leads to the ultimate goal of enlightenment.

A form of Ashtanga Yoga called Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga is among the most rigorous styles of yoga being practiced today. Developed by K. Pattabhi Jois of Mysore, India, it is a set series of poses that are always performed in the same order. Students move from one posture to the next in a continual flow. These exercises were specifically designed to build strength, flexibility and stamina. I was able to rehabilitate my hip by practicing this style of yoga.

Lisa Cox, of Chico, had a similarly healing experience as a result of undertaking Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga.

“When I first started doing yoga I was stressed, chain smoking, working full time, studying for my marriage-and-family-therapist oral exams, and had gained 30 pounds,” she said during a recent interview.

“I was running a group [counseling] session one day,” she continued, “and a client asked me if I was pregnant. That was it! I decided to go back to the gym, had my body fat checked, and I was 34 percent fat!”

She decided to attend a yoga class—in this case one taught by Nancy Wiegman at Chico Sports Club—and after one class was “a born-again yoga person. … I no longer had to force myself to the club to work out; I looked forward to it and could not get enough. I lost 30 pounds, changed my eating habits, quit smoking, and passed my orals all within the first year.”

More important, she said, “doing yoga has helped her with tolerance, patience, gratitude, and, as Nancy says, ‘to be kinder than necessary.’” She’s gone to India twice to study with Pattabhi Jois, and says she is grateful that, no matter where she travels, she can always find a yoga class “and feel part of a kind and supportive group of people.”

Nancy Wiegman (I should disclose here that she is my wife) continues to teach Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga at Chico Sports Club, and Lisa Marie Gorman teaches it at Blue Lotus Yoga & Wellness.

Bikram Yoga, sometimes called “hot yoga,” is among the most widely known of the common types of yoga being practiced today. It was developed by Bikram Choudhury, of Beverly Hills, and has hundreds of studio affiliates, including Bikram Yoga Chico on Mangrove Avenue.

Bikram Yoga consists of a series of 26 postures and two breathing exercises, performed in a room heated to 40.5 degrees Celsius (105°F), with 40 percent humidity.

Andrew Gere is a certified Bikram instructor who teaches at Bikram Yoga Chico and In Motion Fitness.

He started doing yoga at Chico State in 1998, following knee surgery, as a way to continue his physical rehabilitation, but it was many years before he fully understood what it could do for him, he says.

He was living in his hometown of Sacramento, working 30-40 hours a week while going to school full-time and running a landscaping business owned by a friend in the Army reserves who had been called up to active duty in the Middle East.

K. Pattabhi Jois (1915-2009) was a foremost teacher of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, one of the most demanding of the several main yoga styles.

“Needless to say, it was a bit too much for me to handle,” he said when we talked recently. “When the first round of midterms came, I was completely unprepared and totally overwhelmed, physically, mentally and emotionally.

“It was then that a friend of mine, a former martial-arts instructor-turned-Bikram Yoga instructor, invited me to take his class. I don’t know if it was just because it was my second time [practicing yoga] or if I just happened to be at a place in my life that allowed me to be open to it, but it changed my life to this day.

“All of the stress and worry that had been plaguing me for the last several months was gone, and I found myself focused only on what was happening to me right at that moment. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’ll be fine, just stay in the room, don’t pass out, don’t throw up, just breathe. I’ll be fine.’”

That sense of penetrating into the deepness of the moment remained with him after the class: “I found myself in a completely different state of mind than when it began—no longer worried or stressed about the past or the uncertainty of what was to come and much more focused on what was right in front of me.

“Over the next several months I paid off all of my debts and saved up the money I needed to attend the Bikram Yoga teacher training in the spring of 2003. After graduating I began teaching at the studio where I took my first class and ultimately moved back to Chico to open my own studio in the fall of 2004.”

Although Paul Hurschmann took over ownership of the studio, Gere continues to teach at the studio he founded in 2004.

Iyengar Yoga, perhaps the most recognizable of all the modern types of yoga, was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar of Pune, India. This style focuses on precision of physical alignment and perfection of posture. It is also characterized by its use of props, such as belts, bolsters, straps, blocks and benches, as aids in performing the positions. Iyengar Yoga often emphasizes holding poses over long periods, stressing the development of flexibility, strength, stamina, balance and concentration. The Iyengar Yoga Institute of San Francisco offers a rigorous teacher-training program.

Tom Hess, who lives in Paradise, is a certified Iyengar instructor and has studied in India with B.K.S. Iyengar. He says, “Yoga taught in the Iyengar way emphasizes an awareness and alignment of the outer body that leads to an awareness and alignment of the inner body. The intelligent use of props allows all levels of students to experience this alignment and awareness in the poses.” Tom teaches at Chico Sports Club and Beyond Fitness, in Paradise.

My own introduction to yoga was through Lilias, Yoga and You, a PBS television show hosted by Lilias Folan of Cincinnati, Ohio. My wife, Nancy, and I were in Bloomington, Ind., during the summer of 1978, when we met Lilias at a free yoga class she was offering. She had come to Bloomington to visit her guru at a local ashram.

I was introduced to the most demanding of all yoga styles, Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, in 1995, and in 2000 was privileged to practice for two weeks under the direction of K. Pattabhi Jois, who, at age 85, was in California on world tour.

At 7 a.m. a gymnasium in Carlsbad would fill with more than 250 practitioners, who would be led through what a series of linked asanas, or poses, that have come down to us through millennia. Some of their names—Upward Facing Dog, Downward Facing Dog, Boat, Tortoise, Rooster, Plough, Lotus—remind us that the early Hatha Yoga practitioners took their inspiration directly from the world around them.

For two hours Pattabhi Jois would call out the poses in his strong Indian accent. He and his grandson would wander the room independently, making adjustments. Some of his odd phrases needed translation. For example, he would say “Loose the feet!” to get people to point their toes while in plough pose.

At 9 a.m. a two-hour practice of more demanding poses would begin with a mostly different group of 250 yogis. I left at 9, but some diehards like Nancy would remain for a total of four hours of challenging poses and sometimes painful “adjustments” from the guru himself.

Recalling her experience with Pattabhi Jois in India, Lisa Cox said, “One adjustment Pattabhi Jois would do on occasion was to lie on my back while I was in seated forward bend with his 200-plus pounds. It made me understand the ‘sore’ in Mysore.”

No one ever saw him do a yoga pose, although his grandson gave a spectacular yoga demonstration one afternoon at a studio in Encinitas.

It’s now estimated that more than 20 million Americans study and practice yoga, and studies have shown that, of all the physical activities, it had the second-highest percentage increase in participation over the past year: 13.2 percent.

Personal testimony is the most powerful advertisement for any new health practice, even one that is thousands of years old, and the millions of Americans now benefiting from yoga inevitably will encourage others to join them. If Americans’ current pursuit of wellness is a guide or indicator, yoga will continue to attract enthusiastic practitioners in the years to come.

As for myself, I continue to do Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga three mornings a week at Chico Sports Club. The other days I balance this rigorous style with gentle-yoga classes. Yoga continues to be a foundational part of my daily life.