Yoga gains popularity and locations

Elbows out. Chin down. Exhale. Reach up. Exhale. One more.

A packed class of students sweats profusely as these instructions issue from Colleen Bourgeois, proprietor of Bikram’s Yoga College of India La Jolla at 565 Pearl St. during one of her “hot yoga” classes.

Hot yoga devotees work out in a room heated to 105 degrees. The heat helps keep their muscles warm, helps their bodies to become more supple and compliant, Bourgeois tells them.

“Yoga is meditation,” notes Bourgeois. “Breathing is one of the most important parts. It helps to oxygenate your body. It also helps with your respiratory.”

One female student in Bourgeois’ class creates a “perfect” straight line with her body while arching her leg backwards performing a characteristic “pose” that yoga practitioners strike during a 90-minute group workout.

“Look to the (full-length) mirror and breathe,” intones Bourgeois, “don’t think of anything else: Just breathe.”

Some of your muscles will contract, other muscles will relax, explains Bourgeois as she guides her class through a choreographed routine of yoga poses. “You have to challenge yourself,” she adds. “You have to go beyond where you want to go sometimes. Learn to focus. Engage the mind’s eye.”

An ancient spiritual practice originating in India, yoga is becoming increasingly “mainstream” as an alternative form of exercise and meditation. Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India. Union, in yoga, occurs between the mind, body and spirit. Yoga is mostly associated with the practice of asanas (postures) of Hatha Yoga, or as a form of exercise. Major branches of Yoga include: Hatha Yoga, Karma Yoga, Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Raja Yoga.

Many think yoga is just stretching. But it is really about creating balance in the body through developing both strength and flexibility, practitioners say.

This is done through the performance of poses or postures, each of which has specific physical benefits. The poses can be done quickly in succession, creating heat in the body through movement, or more slowly to increase stamina and perfect the alignment of the pose. The poses are a constant, but the approach to them varies depending on the tradition in which the teacher has trained.

There are at least half a dozen full-blown yoga studios in La Jolla. The majority of gyms and physical fitness centers in the area also offer yoga classes as an integral part of their program mix. Yoga can also be a cross-over discipline employed by fitness trainers who apply it to sports training and rehabilitation.

Gerhard Gessner, owner of Prana Yoga at 1041 Silverado St., started out in the martial arts and became a “convert” to yoga, embracing its inherent peacefullness and discipline. He taught yoga classes in a La Jolla gym for 13 years before opening up his own studio.

Explaining yoga’s numerous physical and mental benefits, and its overriding purpose, Gessner said: “It’s really not about how advanced a level of pose you can do. The basic goal, as the Dalai Lama says, ‘Everybody wants to be happy.’ People don’t come here to get beat up. They come here to be more happy, to have more mobility in their body. They want to feel better about themselves. Open up.

“One of our goals is to help people feel good and better about themselves. The way we approach it is we’re really not trying to correct you. You look for the good that’s already there, and then you build on that.”

Recently, this 52-year-old La Jolla Light journalist decided to experience yoga first-hand. Not knowing quite what to expect, I found a yoga session to be surprisingly physical, at least - if not more - strenous than a standard gym workout. Trying out the various yoga poses for the first time that “looked so easy” watching others do it, proved frustratingly difficult, at least at first blush.

Feeling awkward and unbalanced, perspiring profusely while attempting a shaky posture, I struggled to stand on my right leg with my left foot wedged up against it. I felt truly humbled and awed as I watched my next-door neighbor articulating a perfect posture that made her appear almost double-jointed.

Despite feeling out of place, there is a certain comfort one experiences in a group yoga setting. The routine of postures has a soothing rhythm, a comforting flow and reassuring symmetry to it. First stretch or work one side of the body, then work the opposite side. Switch to a different pose. Again, work both sides of the body. Then segue into another pose. Then back to the original pose which “recurs” at regular intervals.

Yoga class instructor Gessner “works” the room during a 90-minute class, offering individualized instruction when necessary to those requiring more help in striking - or holding - postures. Don’t try to do too much, he confides. If you can’t reach all the way to your toes, he advises, settle for your ankles. Do it by increments. Be patient.

La Jollan Mimi Trotter, who’s spiritual name is “hari/das/kaur,” meaning “servant of God,” has been teaching a style of yoga known as kundalini, referred to as the “grandfather” of all yogas, for many years. She talked about what yoga is - and isn’t. “It’s not a religion,” she said. “It’s a science of the human body. It has to do with experience.”

Though yoga may have been orginated by ascetics and first practiced by the high-born in India centuries ago, Trotter noted it has gradually evolved into a discipline for the masses. “Everybody can do it,” she pointed out.

Evolution is exactly what yoga is all about, expains Trotter. She said modern strains of the ancient practice even seek to treat psychiatric disorders such as psychoses. “What yoga and meditation can do is give you a life that’s fulfilling,” said Trotter, “rather than swamped by anxiety and depression. It can give us an experience of our true identity, our authenticity.”

Back at Bickram Yoga on a typical day in a standard hot yoga class, instructor Colleen Bourgeois, as rhythmically as the sun crossing the sky each day, leads her students through their routine of postures, prodding or encouraging them as needed. “Look in the mirror,” she says. “Take a deep breath. Stretch your spine. Reach down to the very tops of your toes. It doesn’t matter how well you do it. What matters is that you do it the best you can.”

Yoga colleague Gerhard Gessler has taken his practice of the yoga discipline from hobby to career to lifestyle. He said it has not only made him feel more “at home” with himself, but lent a greater harmony to his association with others.

“We’ve created a wonderful community that comes here,” Gessler said of his yoga studio, “everything from neuroscientists to doctors and lawyers - you name it. It’s a wonderful business to have.”