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?”
Buddha Meets Boot Camp
To experience the edge of fitness yoga, I signed up for Power Vinyasa: Music Intense, a notoriously butt-kicking class at Urban Yoga Spa downtown. The 75-minute session is taught on Sundays by Gordon and Kathy Ferguson, who also own the place. From the remote spot in the second row where I dropped my mat, I took in Gordon, squatting up front in black biker shorts, shirtless, his pecs bulbous and glistening. No local weather conditions I knew of could have accounted for such a toasty tan. Between me and Gordon were a couple dozen men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s—diverse in ethnicity but alike in their sinewy musculature. Through an entrance in the back they kept coming, taut bodies squeezing in between taut bodies, until the floor was patchworked in mats.
Gordon padded over to the back of the room and pushed a button on the wall; within moments the temperature ascended to a roaring 95 degrees. Dangling in front of his mouth was a microphone attached to a headset, like the employees wear at Burger King, I thought, then furtively scanned the room to see if anyone had read my mind. Thinking about Burger King at Urban Yoga Spa felt like having a sexual fantasy at church: all wrong. As the music blasted I realized, too late, that I’d left my water bottle upstairs. I was already sweating from the heat—and we were still just lying on our mats, feet on the floor.
The class was mega intense, right from the start. In between yoga poses, we did crunches with our legs suspended in the air, sets of 20 performed again and again and again and again and youhavetobekiddingmenow again. Whatever noodle-armed, slump-backed sins of alignment escaped Gordon’s eagle-eye gaze were caught by Kathy’s. More than once I accepted the reality that I might throw up, but what I felt mostly wasn’t fear, it was anger. Anger that I could not finish all the crunches. Anger that I had to crawl, panting, into a child’s pose as the other students rose and fell in a flowing, graceful series of vinyasa poses. Anger at Gordon for making me sit in an achy squat until my legs shook in pain. Anger at Coldplay for the club remix of “Clocks” blasting over the speaker system. I pretty much raged until class ended, at which point I was suddenly and dramatically relieved. On the mats next to me, one student admonished his friend for not working hard enough, not the sort of sentiment typically shared between students at yoga class. But then, was that even yoga class? Where does boot camp end and yoga begin, I wondered, as I accepted a high five from Gordon on my way out, sweat droplets spraying out from our hands as we made contact.
But then later I felt it: yogic afterglow.
I’ve tried all sorts of exercise, and nothing—nothing—compares to the euphoria you get after yoga. And after Power Vinyasa: Music Intense I was the human equivalent of those “Life Is Good” T-shirts people buy in airports, the ones with the hippie stick figures kayaking and attending Phish concerts. Whatever negative emotion I’d suffered, I’d clearly breathed my way through it. I was so full of goodwill and well-being that I was starting to annoy myself. This is why cynical people smirk at yoga, isn’t it? This sort of easy it’s-all-goodness? It was time to look a little deeper.
Love Me, Love My Yoga Practice
At the Department of Veterans Affairs in Seattle, of all places, there is a gastroenterologist who studies the connection between yoga and meditation, and feeling like a million bucks. In the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program (MBSRP), David Kearney shows patients suffering with posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, and chronic pain how to use yoga and meditation techniques to break the cycle of negative thinking. Simply attending a yoga class, Kearney told me, interrupts thought patterns that make us unhappy because we pay attention to our breathing, become aware of and observe our feelings, and work through them.
One of Kearney’s students is Raymond Fletcher, a Vietnam vet. During that war Fletcher and his unit were suddenly pinned down in the jungle, enemy rounds whizzing just above their heads, pelting the rucksacks on their shoulders. One second, quiet. The next: bullets in the backpack.
And so if Fletcher’s driving and his son in the back kicks his car seat, it’s a pretty bad scene. He hasn’t slept in a bed for years, restive nights are endured in a reclining chair, a DirecTV music station playing low, but loud enough so he can’t hear the heater clicking or animals outside. Coupled with this vigilance is a general mistrust in others. “In Vietnam you’re supposed to find what’s wrong in everything,” says Fletcher, who was the lieutenant of his platoon. “I’ve carried that through my entire life.”
Three years ago, Fletcher’s primary care doctor referred him to Kearney. The word yoga freaked him out a little—“I’m too manly for this,” he thought—but he completed an eight-week primary course, learning yoga and meditation techniques designed to create new cognitive patterns for dealing with negative thoughts. Fletcher let the exercises slide, however, and his problems persisted.
So last fall he signed up for a meditation class with the loaded name Loving Kindness (when Fletcher’s brother saw his textbook, his jaw dropped: “What the hell are you doing over there at the Vet?” he asked), a Buddhist technique aimed at sweetening the mind and cultivating altruistic love and acceptance of one’s self and others. He’s determined to stick with it this time, and the stakes are high: “If I’m going to have any kind of relationship with my family, this needs to work,” Fletcher, who is separated from his wife, told me. But progress is slow, and he struggles not to get angry when his classmates come late, sometimes questioning their motivations for coming to class at all. “I hope that they’re sincere,” he said, choosing his words carefully. “Because I am.” By the final class he aims to be able to close his eyes and meditate, no matter who else is in the room with him.
Posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, chronic pain—the problems that plague patients like Fletcher, says David Kearney, cannot be solved medically. Clinical studies show that yoga and meditation programs can reduce the relapse of depression by a drastic 50 percent. As compelling and persistent as recurring thoughts and feelings are, we can learn to disengage from them, stay present and positive, and start to feel better. “If you’re more in contact with your natural state, it seems to lead to a natural tenderizing of the heart. If you become more open to what’s going on within you, then self-compassion and self-care seem to arise.” We help others by helping ourselves, Kearney was saying. I wanted to see that in action.
“How are you?” asked the instructor, Mem Rippey, her gray curls bouncing as she cocked her head at a grandfatherly man with a full beard and a pair of no-wrinkle khakis. It was the last Thursday before Thanksgiving and six of us had showed up for gentle yoga at the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, a class offered free to patients and their caregivers. The man was just digesting news that he’d be enduring a battery of new tests, he told us. That was stressful. Next, his neighbor reported a welcome break from chronic knee pain, and the tiny lady in the middle smiled wryly, shaking her cloud of silver hair. She was okay, too.
“And how about you, Jonathan?” asked Rippey, landing her gaze on a man in the center of the room whose head bent down toward his lap. Eyes closed, laughter tickling the edge of his voice, Jonathan replied that he awoke that morning feeling like a storm had ripped through the backyard of his brain. As he talked, I pictured one of those rubber-strip lawn chairs swinging from the upper branches of an oak tree, the domed lid of a charcoal barbecue floating in a fish pond. Dead leaves everywhere.
Jonathan, I learned later, had had a bone marrow transplant the previous February and sometimes experienced mental gaffes: confusion, disorientation, forgetfulness. He had looked down at a pen in his hand that morning and couldn’t remember if it belonged to him. We spent the next 60 minutes following Rippey through breath-focused movements, seated in plastic chairs. As class went on a quiet symbiosis spread among the students, the breath seeming to travel from one of us to the next, the respiratory equivalent of singing in a round. They were helping one another, and you could sense it. The feeling was thick in the air.
Molly Lannon Kenny takes the helping-other-people-through-yoga thing more literally. Seated cross-legged in a pair of jewel-toned genie pants, Lannon Kenny described, for the attendees of a moderate evening yoga class, her day. She went to Pike Medical that morning and taught poses to a few old men, then motored over to Sand Point where she was planning a free class for denizens of a new 52-unit low-income housing project. She’d just returned from a weekend retreat where she and her staff had agreed on their goal for the next year: to change the world.
Nobody laughed. As welcoming as it is, the Samarya Center for Integrated Movement does not invite sarcasm. Lannon Kenny, the founder and director, is brunette and tiny, with a very direct gaze. She has this hard-to-define, highly energized power, like some kind of tiny yogic superhero. And her do-gooder spirit emanates through these rooms as strongly as the spicy odor of Nag Champa incense.
Squeezed into a strip of Central District shops across from a patch of grass called Pratt Park, Samarya is part yoga studio, part rehab center. Trained as a clinical speech pathologist for autistic children and sufferers of traumatic injuries, multiple sclerosis, and strokes, Lannon Kenny partnered with her friend Stephanie Sisson, a social worker and Ashtanga yoga teacher. They figured they’d teach yoga to pay the rent while they developed a clinical therapy that incorporated yoga into the treatment of the same sorts of patients Lannon Kenny had worked with in hospitals. Nine years later Samarya is run as a nonprofit—the drop-in rate for yoga classes here is $8, about $7 to $12 less than what is typical. And while many students come only for exercise, the two sides of the business have bled together. One instructor, partially paralyzed from a stroke, first came to Samarya for yoga therapy. Yoga improved his speech and mobility and he started teaching other stroke victims; now he teaches classes whenever he’s needed.
“I think of it as a clearinghouse for all types of people doing yoga,” says Lannon Kenny. “To create a more diverse population in yoga, you have to go out and get them. The other piece is, you have to have people standing in the front of the room that are African American, large-bodied, transgendered, differently abled . . . whatever. That’s what it is going to take to make people believe that yoga is for everybody.” To achieve that, Samarya has set up a scholarship program for teachers who, before they receive funding, must answer the question: “If we give you this training, what will you give back to the world?”
On the morning I interviewed Anne Phyfe Palmer, I noticed a book topping a stack on her coffee table, an advance copy of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Bainbridge Island author Claire Dederer. I’d just read it, too, and mentioned a quote from the book that kept popping into my thoughts as I went about interviewing people for this story. Dederer describes how in the first few years of her yoga practice, she focused on mastering poses. But later she learned that yoga wasn’t really about improving, or mastering poses. It was about . . . doing yoga. “Here’s the truth,” writes Dederer. “The longer I do yoga, the worse I get at it. I can’t tell you what a relief that is.”
Palmer smiled, her eyes widening in recognition. “Yoga,” she said, “is about freedom.” The relief Dederer describes comes from the liberating knowledge that you don’t have to worry about improving, mastering, or any of that. Maybe, I thought, it’s the freedom that we find so useful. Yoga, in all its iterations, helps us confront those very insidious things—the vain worries about the hot-looking yogi doing sit-ups so much more suavely than we can, the stresses that tamp down already deeply rooted, debilitating trauma. Just by showing up and breathing we achieve much-needed space from those troubles, and that feeling alone is what everyone’s after, really. That feeling moves us through another chemo round, or inspires us to help other people, or delivers us into one night of perfect sleep. “You just keep practicing,” Palmer told me. “And it’ll change your life.”