SUNDAY MORNINGS FIND ME slapping a rubber mat down on the concrete floor of a one-room yoga studio in Madrona, just around the corner from the neighborhood cupcake shop. Through storefront windows passersby can gawk at the less bendy students in the back row, where we tend to congregate. Now and again a frosting-fueled toddler teeters over and presses a gooey face against the glass, peering in at the lycra-clad ladies folding themselves into funny positions. What are they doing in there? the kids must wonder. I’ve wondered that myself.
Seattle loves yoga. One in eight of us practices it, compared to about one in 14 nationally. Hatha yoga poses were developed thousands of years ago so that monks could sit still longer, and more comfortably, during meditation. It’s easy to see how a city of screen-gazing techbots might find use for those same postures. But we don’t just practice yoga, we teach it: to prisoners and preschoolers, to burnt-out employees and at-risk youth and autistic children and trauma-ravaged veterans. What is it about yoga, particularly, that feels like a catchall solution, capable of helping all of us out? Yoga is exercise, but not only. It’s a spiritual practice, but not exactly. There’s a lot of talk about selflessness, but also about self. So for whom are we doing it? After I practice, I feel better. But why? How? To find out I talked to yogis around town—studio owners, scientists, do-gooders, sick people, veterans, and plain old fitness freaks—all of whom believe that the road to the good life is paved with sticky mats.
Birth of the Fitness Model
The first person on my list was Anne Phyfe Palmer, the owner of Eight Limbs Yoga studios. I met her at her Madison Valley house, a rain-cloud-colored bungalow where toys line the front porch. Palmer answered the door wearing purple cords and a T-shirt with a Sanskrit phrase scrawled across the chest. Inside, Jasper the tortoise crawled slowly on the radiant-heated hardwood floor as Palmer recounted how she grew up in New Orleans and taught aerobics classes as a teen. After college she zigzagged her way west on a discover-your-destiny road trip in the early 1990s.
Her destiny turned out to be a job at a health publication, which led her right to the heart of the local yoga scene. This was before the era of power yoga at the gym and a studio in every neighborhood, before most of us had ever heard words like Pilates or namaste or om. Palmer says Seattle yoga was an earnest counterculture back then, populated by vaunted teachers and their followers, convinced they were studying the one true practice. “There was this underpinning of: ‘This is how you do yoga,’ ” she said. “My exposure, from teachers that I studied with outside of Seattle, was there is no one way to do yoga. That there are many ways to do it.” Someone, she thought, should bring that sort of spirit to Seattle yoga.
“Someone” was her. When Palmer opened the first Eight Limbs in 1996, it was one of the earliest local studios to operate more like a health club than a place of worship, albeit a health club where students scurried around barefoot and lifted their voices for Sanskrit chants. It was real-deal yoga, but with zero dogma. And people loved it. Today, Palmer has four studios that compete (a very unyogic word, but there it is) with hundreds of other places around town. “We didn’t invent the fitness model of yoga, but we did apply a fitness class model, which is really what this experiment of yoga in America is,” said Palmer.
And while that experiment seems to be moving toward a yoga that’s evermore physical and ever less spiritual, Palmer says that people who see one form of yoga as more authentic, more valuable than another are missing the point. “Yoga, as a discipline, chooses to hold the whole universe in itself. Some people can go to a mountaintop and meditate all day, others of us have to run a business and have kids. There’s such diversity, and we have to grow into being big enough to hold all of that.”
Big enough, even, to hold “Power Vinyasa: Music Intense?”