Yoga, Sacramento style

Designer stretch pants, hot bodies and soul detox: Our writer strikes a pose in search of enlightenment

illusration by hayley doshay

I’ll admit it, I’m a weekend warrior when it comes to enlightenment. Usually I seek this redemption at the end of a particularly long weekend, one that requires some sort of atonement for too much alcohol and not enough sleep.

This is all too apparent as I stand, drenched in flop sweat in the midst of a Power Vinyasa class at Zuda Yoga (1515 19th Street) class one Sunday, detoxing “craft cocktail” out of every pore as I struggle to still my quaking quads. My knees are locked in a position I call The Punisher but the world calls Warrior II—it’s all part of my quest to learn more about yoga in Sacramento, but right now, I’m having second thoughts as the instructor walks between other similarly grimacing students and addresses the hot and desperate room:

“It’s easy to breathe deeply in a restful position, but can we take a few deep breaths when things get tough? How do you react,” he asks with a dramatic pause, “under pressure?” On cue, an assistant hits play on a stereo, and the opening notes to David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” pulses through the room, and the mass of students collectively collapses from tense poses into laughter.

Here, the Power Vinyasa classes, held in heated studios, are so popular that instructions to extend your right arm to the right, “which is going to mean resting it on the person to the right’s shoulder, and extend your left leg to the left, resting it on that person to the left’s hip” are standard.

“If you’re wondering what’s going to happen next, there’s going to be a lot of this,” instructor Matt Tucker says, but he isn’t joking, and while it’s hard to feel confident in a room full of women wearing brand-name stretch pants and unironic sweat bands, a class at Zuda means getting comfortable because there’s no room not to be.

This is yoga, American style, where even this most ancient of soul-seeking traditions is now clothed in spandex, promising a tighter, lifted tush. Many devotees who have seen yoga through its various incarnations since the 1970s when it first gained widespread popularity now bemoan the recent commercialization of what has become a $10.3 billion a year industry according to a 2012 “Yoga in America” study conducted by Yoga Journal.

But such commercialism isn’t all bad: In today’s high-tech, overdrive environment, more than 20.4 million Americans have discovered yoga as a soul-detoxing panacea to lives rife with tweets, traffic and social anxieties. Last year, Forbes named the San Francisco Bay Area the top yoga region in the United States with residents there 59 percent more likely to practice than the national population.

And the trend’s clearly expanded in Sacramento. Take a ride through almost any neighborhood, and it’s hard to ignore city blocks punctuated by yoga studios offering classes, workshops and lifestyle accouterments.

Even so, I’ve often wondered what they’re really selling. How can there be so many studios in one town and are they really that different from one another? Without knowing my Vinyasa from Bikram, I dropped in on classes throughout the city to see if I could tap in to what’s captivated Sacramento.

Of course, it’s difficult to do that without facing a few unsavory truths: With women making up more than 82 percent of yoga practitioners in the United States, according to the “Yoga in America” study, the “yoga body” is now marketed as aggressively as any other beauty form in mainstream media.

The typical “yoga woman” we see today is slender, strong, financially successful while shunning material possessions. She may be actually glowing. It’s an ideal that many women long for without the critical eye we reserve for airbrushed images of fashion magazines because it’s supposedly based in discipline rather than brand names or beauty creams, though it certainly has those things to sell. In a way, Downward-Facing Dog has replaced the Nike swoosh, and “namaste” is the new “Just Do It.” Distinguishing between the inspirational and unrealistic is a battle all its own.

“The implication that rippling abs can be yours with a couple of yoga classes a week … [is the creation] of corporations who want you to buy all the necessary yoga accouterments,” explains Danielle Prohom Olson on her blog Body Divine Yoga.

While yoga can offer these benefits, Olson asserts that it takes time and dedication to attain them, achievements that the manufacture of a false ideal ultimately undermines while sweeping away the greatest merits yoga has to offer.

Dodging image issues, I decide to give the Zen approach a try at the cozy but comfortable Yoga Shala (2030 H Street). Here, men and women radiate a “born again” enthusiasm. They were once as I was, dropping in on the occasional 30-days-for-$30 challenge at various studios through town, only to quit sore and exhausted two weeks later, and then they found Shala. Or, rather, the studio found them, enfolding all into that promising haven of flexibility and strength that turns the dabblers into the disciplined. Wednesday evenings at this studio are for the growing group of Kundalini lovers, a branch of yoga focused on energy balancing and meditation, where mouth-breathers are spurned. This type of practice, the tentative yogi should know, is not for the allergenic, as attempting to breathe through a single nostril while stuffed up may actually kill you, if not from lack of oxygen then by humiliation when you blow an unintended snot rocket at your instructor’s yoga mat.

Though I emerge from the class wheezing and lightheaded, I do feel relaxed and uncharacteristically open to the world; Yoga Shala’s gone and won another.

Elsewhere in Sacramento, Practice Yoga (807 16th Street), is busy bridging the old and new with its paradigm-changing Yoga Wall, a system that connects harnesses to recessed hooks in the wall, suspending students in cushioned, swinglike slings.

The classes range from entry level and therapeutic to highly challenging and are reminiscent of the TRX Suspension Training found in so many gyms these days. For the class I attend, I’m relieved to find that most of the students are first-timers like myself, the pace set slow as we tentatively call on our inner possums.

Half-circus and half-Vinyasa, the midweek Yoga Wall Masala class has us all hanging in deeply relaxing inversions before using gravity, the wall and the straps of our slings to perform variations of previously innocuous yoga poses. For much of the 90-minute session I work on gaining confidence in the harness, my vision focused on the instructor hanging calmly upside-down on the opposite wall, his legs crossed in a comfortable position as he demonstrates the upcoming set of moves while promising that I will not fall. Even with a morale-boosting bowl of chocolate candies near the door and its view of the gleaming and cakelike Governor’s Mansion right outside the windows, the studio’s still been slow to catch on in town, according to Jim Cahill, the owner and instructor.

Despite the classes’ accessibility to any skill level, they have remained the territory of the athletic thrill seekers and fringe fitness lovers, though “anyone can do this,” he assures. “I’m 55, and I have never felt better.”

Cahill’s not too concerned. When the yogis inevitably grow tired of the repetitive Bikram and Power Flow classes so ubiquitous in Sacramento, his studio will be waiting, offering the next variation in a 5,000-year-old practice that never gets old.

It’s true. Sitting at home with a bottle of anti-inflammatories and newfound sense of calm, I find I have to take sides with the yogis and yoginis of America.

Sure, yoga has its pitfalls, some overcrowding here and vicious price markups there, but at what cost holistic health and inner peace? If Sacramentans want to buy into a salubrious trend that leaves them more vital and productive, can it really cause more harm than the unrealistic marketing schemes that attend it?

So, let them wear leggings and choose their practice, be their intent spiritual or physical results. As for me, I’ll be right behind them, if only for another tube of Icy Hot. That yoga, it burns so good.