Whether people take up yoga for pain management, fitness or stress relief, they often find spiritual benefits as well, instructors say.
By LAURIE M. FISHER
Yoga has made it to the mainstream. Across the nation and in the Mahoning Valley, yoga classes are offered at fitness clubs, health centers, churches and public parks. Many participants initially seek a combination of physical fitness or relief from stress or pain.
Dr. Usha Sundarum, a yoga expert from Bangalore, India, attributes the surge in interest in the ancient practice to a rise in uncertainty in personal and professional matters and in world events.
"There is a sudden awakening of people who want answers. People might come into yoga because of the physical practice, but they are going to leave a session with much more," she said during a visit to conduct yoga seminars in the area.
Uncertainty is everywhere, she said. "That is always a prelude for an interest in consciousness," noted the psychiatrist, who combines her medical knowledge with years of spiritual study.
"Stability will never be on the outside because the world is constantly changing. It is only your inside that can give you that stability. I think that's why corporate people have found yoga useful. When you have that inner stability, you can go out and be more productive. Whatever you do becomes more efficient because you see the larger picture," she said.
Session: Recently, Dr. Sundarum conducted a midsummer evening five-hour session for more than 40 students gathered at Mill Creek Park's Pioneer Pavilion.
Dr. Sundarum led the group through guided meditation and an informal lecture. She then directed the physical movements and postures of the sun salutation to demonstrate breathing and chanting techniques.
The evening ended with chanting and a walking mediation in the gardens surrounding the pavilion.
"I talk about not just doing the practice as a mechanical thing, but to use it to go into yourself to understand yourself. Otherwise, what value is it?" she asked.
Dr. Sundarum explained the different levels of consciousness that can occur when practicing yoga:
"There is one thing about living with stress. It is another thing about living with stress and doing well. The third level is being able to de-stress after you go through the stress. "The fourth level is to be constantly de-stressed so that nothing bothers you. And the fifth level is to see beforehand when stress is likely to happen and allow your self to relax before stress occurs," she explained.
"It's knowing the whole situation. You look and see the whole pattern," she added.
Path to teaching: Mariellen Rich of Hillsville, Pa., suffers from fibromyalgia. She learned from a class several years ago with Dr. Sundarum how to meditate and to release tensions and stress.
"I really connected with what Usha said," she noted. She became a certified yoga instructor and specializes in classes for children and those with chronic pain.
"If people come to class for physical reasons, they realize afterwards that they have connected with their spirit somewhere along the line. It's not a religion; it's their spirit within. The practice increases whatever their spiritual beliefs are. It helps them heal inside themselves," said Rich, who has taught at Villa Maria Educational Center, the Ursuline Mother House and several churches.
After a few sessions with some inner-city children, Rich said, she observed a difference in the eyes of her students, even the most skeptical children. "I can tell how light they are. They let go of a lot of things weighing them down. It is a physical and visual way of letting go."
The former aerobics teacher also discovered that she "doesn't have to beat herself up to exercise. Yoga is a nice balance where to go from physical to relaxing."
Another certified yoga instructor, Mary Kay Griffiths of Canfield, has practiced for 13 years. "When I started doing poses, I felt I had done them before. It intuitively felt like something I would like to continue to do," she said describing her introduction to yoga.
Purposes: "Most of the students who come to me want stress relief. Others attend sessions because they feel tight and want to loosen their muscles. Or they may have pain or discomfort and want to manage their pain," said the registered nurse, who believes in the benefits of combining traditional medicine with a complementary program.
Griffiths has taught yoga to cancer support groups at both Forum and Humility of Mary health systems.
Jan Mostov of Liberty started yoga about 14 years ago when he had backaches. "I did it at first for physical benefits. Gradually I discovered the spiritual benefits," he noted.
Mostov thinks more men will find yoga is athletic; "it's not just rolling around on the floor," he noted. His wife, Evelyn, attended several classes before joining her husband at the Mill Creek session. The psychologist said she teaches yoga breathing techniques to specific clients.
Dr. Sundarum emphasized that each person should start yoga for his or her own reasons.
"If a person wants to get into it for physical reasons, that's OK. Some may start to become more creative.
"People come into it as skeptics, and that's fine too. Yoga is not here to prove anything to anyone. So there is no confrontation. There is no rigidity to it. Each experience can be so unique. How do you compare? It's like trying to compare an apple tree to a pear tree," she said.