The expanding power of yoga

Age-old technique’s following keeps growing in Williston and beyond

Aug. 25, 2011

By Adam White

Observer staff

Instructor Scott Duszko, center, guides students through a session of ‘Sports Yoga’ at Synergy Fitness Center in Williston. Yoga classes at gyms are typically aimed at improving physical aspects like flexibility and proper breathing during exercise. Observer photo by Adam White.

It sounds like a bad joke: what might a mountaintop hermit, a pregnant woman and Shaquille O’Neal have in common? The answer: yoga.

An integration of movement, breathing and meditation that is thought to predate written history, yoga has been employed by mystics, elite-level athletes and homemakers alike. It takes place in quiet solitude beneath Tibetan sunrises, on living room floors in front of practice videos and within the mirrored walls of health clubs.

September is National Yoga Month, and its approach finds a yoga scene in Williston that is both popular and varied. Numerous facilities offering yoga classes aimed at goals ranging from improving flexibility and integrating better breathing into exercise to unifying one’s body and mind as a means of seeking enlightenment.

“Each year, we’re seeing a growing number of studios and classes offering participants the opportunity to try yoga,” said Sora No, spokesperson for the Yoga Health Foundation’s National Yoga Month campaign. “We’re encouraging people to shop around and experience different types, until they find the one that most appeals to them.”

Future basketball Hall-of-Famer O’Neal was introduced to “Hot Power Vinyasa” yoga at a studio in Cleveland, at the suggestion of then-teammate LeBron James. Synergy Fitness in Williston offers classes in Fitness Yoga, Sports Yoga and even Yogalates, which incorporates elements of Pilates in order to raise the workout level. The Edge in Williston features traditional Sivananda, Vinyasa and Flow varieties interspersed with a special class aimed at stress reduction. Area instructor Rachel Alling even teaches pre-natal yoga for expectant mothers.

“Any yoga is good yoga,” said Allison Morse, who has operated the Ayurvedic Center of Vermont in Williston for six years. The Center began offering community yoga classes two years ago, and has seen increased interest in the discipline since. “The more people are doing yoga, the more peace we’ll see in the world – and that is really the ultimate goal.”

No pain, no gain

A more immediate goal – at least for participants in Scott Duszko’s Sports Yoga class at Synergy – is to reap the workout benefits of what is commonly referred to as “power yoga.”

“We take more of a fitness approach to yoga,” said Christina Schueneman, owner of Synergy. “Most people who use our classes are interested in improving things like flexibility and strength.”

Many of the more advanced poses require sharply honed balance, core strength and flexibility, making power yoga an attractive training tool for athletes.

“Focus on your breathing,” Duszko tells one of his students in mid-pose. “Learning to link your breath with your movement is going to help you when you’re lifting weights.”

This modernization of yoga has raised some questions among traditionalists, who see ego-driven concerns about body image and the de-emphasis of the practice’s meditative or spiritual components as unfortunate.

“Ideally, yoga shouldn’t be reduced to just a series of exercises,” said Sarab Kaur, who teaches Kundalini Yoga at the Ayurvedic Center. “It is a technique we can use to bring better balance to our overall being, through both mind and body.”

Though originally trained in audio engineering, Duszko has shifted to teaching via Honest Yoga, a South Burlington company built on the 15 collective years of instruction experience accrued by him and his wife, Danielle.

While he acknowledges that classes at Synergy may initially attract some participants solely for their exercise appeal, his hope is that students move beyond the purely physical benefits of the discipline into the mental and spiritual ones.

“It is really about how to live and carry yourself toward achieving oneness,” Duszko said, referring to the mind-body symbiosis that practitioners aspire to achieve. “And the physical and mental aspects aren’t really separate; when you’re all stretched out physically, it helps you to sit and meditate.”

Be here now

That quiet contemplation formed the foundation for yoga, upward of 5,000 years ago. The eight steps of Classical yoga outlined by the scholar Patanjali in his text “Yoga Sutra” are more of a mind-body map than a list of exercises, and include pratyahara (preparation for meditation, described as withdrawal of the mind from the senses) and dhyana (the ability to focus on one thing – or nothing – indefinitely).

“Yoga was originally done as a means of achieving enlightenment,” Kaur said. “Yogis used it as a way of mastering the mind, as a path toward reaching their full potential.”

That emphasis on yoga’s mental benefits is still very much intact at the Ayurvedic Center, where a focus on the primary elements associated with each season help shape the focus of yoga instruction.

“Moving into the fall season, it is getting colder and windier; there is more movement in the air,” Morse said. “We should be slowing down, because opposites balance – when there is more movement in nature, we need to be more still.”

While the nature of the movement may change with the seasons, Morse said it is important to remember the words made famous by Ram Dass in his book of the same title: Be Here Now.

“The most important thing is to be present, to focus on breathing and being in the moment,” Morse said. “Enlightenment is happening now.”