A 5,000 Year Old “Fad”
Remember dance aerobics?
Speed walking? Heavy Hands?
We don’t either. Here’s the one form of exercise that has stood the test of time
By David Nayor
Photography by Iko
Whether it was a New York Post photo of Gwyneth Paltrow running through Greenwich Village with a mat conspicuously slung over her shoulder, or the much-hyped revelation that Madonna “Omed” her way to inner tranquility, or the extraordinary sight of Oprah Winfrey on TV trying in vain to lift her formerly Rubenesque rear in Adho Muhka Svannasana (Downward Facing Dog), yoga’s popularity is at an all-time high.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Elaine of “Seinfeld) loves Ashtanga yoga; Def Jam CEO Russell Simmons starts each day with 20 minutes in Padmasana (Lotus pose); Irvington-based fashion designer Eileen Fisher claims that yoga was the thing that helped her shed unwanted pounds; Chappaqua’s Vanessa Williams adores her yoga class at the Saw Mill River Club in Mount Kisco; and Austin Power’s star and Bedford resident Mike Myers has been spotted at the Katonah Yoga Center.
They are hardly alone. Yoga Journal, the country’s preeminent yoga publication, estimates that 15 million Americans practice yoga regularly, twice as many as eight years ago. In Westchester, there are nearly 30 dedicated yoga studios. It is now so mainstream, you can buy discounted yoga accessories at T.J. Maxx. Why is it so popular? Partial credit can be given to the general aging of the population: Baby Boomers’ knees, shoulders, backs, you name it, have been wrenched, wracked, jarred and jolted by jogging, tennis, step aerobics, or just from wear and tear. And yoga is, boomers are told, easy on the joints, good for their aging tickers, and it’s a forgiving mode of exercise, one that is easily modified to serve varying degrees of fitness—and needs. Indeed, there is a style for every taste and fitness level: Anusara, Bikram, Kripalu, Raja, Bhakti, Kundalini, Kriya, Yogalates (a yoga and Pilates hybrid that’s popular with the tight-tush seekers), Tantric Yoga, Yoga for Women, Yoga Fore Golf, and yoga for Supreme Court justices (the Honorable Sandra Day O’Conner reportedly takes a class every Tuesday at the Court gym). There are classes taught en EspaÃ±ol and in Japanese. There is even a yoga class for dogs, called Ruff Yoga, offered at Crunch Fitness. This is, by the way, only a partial list.
But yoga is also popular because it works. In its September/October 2002 issue, Yoga Journal published a study that examined the relationship between yoga and physical fitness. The study, conducted by the University of California at Davis, tested the muscular strength and endurance, flexibility, cardiorespiratory fitness, body composition, and lung function of 10 college students before and after eight weeks of yoga training. The result? Students’ muscular strength had increased by as much as 31 percent, their muscular endurance by 57 percent, and their flexibility by as much as 188 percent and lung function by 7 percent. A related study done at Ball State University in Muncie, IN, looked at how 15 weeks of twice-weekly yoga classes affected the lung capacity of 287 college students. By the end of the semester, all of the students involved, including athletes, asthmatics, and smokers, showed significant improvement in their lung capacity. “The athletes were most surprised because they thought their athletic training had already boosted their lung capacity to the maximum,” says study author Dee Ann Birkel, an emeritus professor at Ball State’s School of Physical Education.
Still greater lung capacity and less flab are not the only draw. “I think people are looking for more peace in their lives,” says Ellen Gazauski, director of the Bikram Yoga College of India in Ossining, trying to explain yoga’s enormous popularity. “Yoga helps put them in a more spiritual place.”
Brahmani Liebman of Rivertown Center for Yoga and Health in Dobbs Ferry says that she’s found that at first people take yoga as a form of exercise but then “get hooked on it and want more from the experience.”
That’s what happened to Patricia Fischer. When a friend invited her to go to a yoga class five years ago, she admits she was skeptical. “I wanted a workout—not a passive, cerebral experience,” she says. “I had no desire to sit on the floor, crossed-legged, and chant om for an hour.” To her surprise, Bikram Yoga was so physically challenging, she decided immediately that it would be her exercise for life. She got so hooked on the practice that three years ago she and a partner opened Westchester’s first Bikram (or Hot Yoga) studio in Elmsford. “This is not a Birkenstock, wheat-germ kind of place,” she says. “But Bikram was my conduit to yoga. It took me from not accepting what yoga was—from thinking it was flaky—to making it my way of life.”
Donna Porter, a software interface designer from Tuckahoe, who began practicing yoga a few years ago, also got hooked. “I have so many things going on in my life and so much stress,” she says. “Yoga helps me discipline my emotions and my mind—to learn to be present in the moment. I can then take that focus with me for the rest of the day. And,” she notes, “I get a great workout at the same time.”
The good workout is key. Yoga is one of the few physical activities that most anyone can do, no matter your age, your weight or your fitness level. (The matriarch of Westchester yoga, Tao Porchon-Lynch, is in her 80s and is a walking, bending, and jumping testimony to the benefits of the practice.) “I always get calls from people wondering if they are fit enough or thin enough to do yoga,” Brahmani Liebman says. “I tell them, â€˜Don’t wait to lose that extra 10 pounds, just come, start now.’”
Another benefit of yoga is said to be improved circulation. Practitioners maintain that the asanas, or poses, help push fresh oxygenated blood through tissues, which they say help release tension and allow muscles to relax.
But perhaps yoga’s most important health benefit is its ability to relax the mind. This is accomplished through controlled breathing. In traditional yoga philosophy, breath signifies your vital energy. Enthusiasts believe controlling your breathing can help you control your body and mind. “Breathing helps calm the mind, which then signals the body to relax,” says Alex von Bidder, a Yonkers resident and co-owner of the renowned Four Seasons Restaurant in Manhattan, who teaches at Yoga Haven in Tuckahoe. He believes that breath can help body and mind cast off the shackles of their pre-programmed limits. “The word yoga means bringing together, binding and yoking,” von Bidder says. “I believe that breath represents a yoking together of the body and mind.”
When coupled with meditation, devotees also claim that yoga can be used to reduce high blood pressure, buttress the immune system, allay the symptoms of arthritis, and even treat depression. Is it any wonder some health practitioners now recommend yoga for their patients? “I think yoga is valuable for health maintenance and prevention,” says Dr. Michael Finkelstein, medical director of the Center for Health & Healing of Northern Westchester, which is affiliated with the Northern Westchester Hospital Center in Mount Kisco. “And you don’t need to have a medical problem to start.”
But you do need to find a type of yoga that works best for you (see “Choosing a Style”), and it doesn’t hurt to find a good teacher. The following three are among the county’s very best.
The Teachers’ Teacher
The 50-year-old founder and director of the Katonah Yoga Center, Nevine Michaan, came to yoga relatively late in life. “I studied history and comparative religion in college and decided I wanted to learn to meditate. In order to learn to meditate, I thought it would be a good idea to study yoga,” says the Bedford Hills resident, who was born in Egypt and raised in New Rochelle. She began by practicing daily with renowned New York-based teacher Alan Bateman.
Michaan moved to Westchester in 1980 but continued to practice, and she began teaching in New York City, building a small but dedicated following of students. At the same time, this mother of three started teaching privately in Bedford. “As my kids started getting older, I started taking on more students.” She opened the Katonah Yoga Center in 1991 (after 14 years in Katonah, the center moved to nearby Bedford Hills), and over the years, she has built a large and devoted following to her unique and eclectic brand of yoga, which she calls “Katonah” yoga. “I’m still working with many of the same students with whom I started when I moved to Westchester,” she notes. Not only has she kept many of her original students, she has trained most of the practitioners who teach in the region.
Elizabeth Andes-Bell, co-owner of the Namaste Yoga and Life in Motion Yoga Studios in Manhattan, among them, says “Nevine possesses a rare gift for teaching the physical and esoteric aspects of yoga. She guides you step-by-step in the basics and seamlessly moves you from the practical to the sublime.”
Skill, says Michaan, is an important component of Katonah Yoga. “If you want to learn how to survive in any yoga class, you need to acquire good skills.”
Whatever style of yoga a person chooses to practice, says Michaan, the goal should always be the same. “As long as you have a good dialogue between body, mind, and breath, you’ll have a great practice.”
Living the Yogic Path
Puja Sue Flamm
Briarcliff Yoga Center direcTOR Sue Flamm spent six years living at the Kripalu Yoga Center in Lenox, MA, where she received her Sanskrit name “Puja,” which she continues to use today. Yoga has always resonated with the 44-year-old Katonah resident. “When I first started practicing—at age 16—yoga seemed so natural. The whole experience felt like a real exploration. It was all very exciting.”
The Briarcliff Yoga Center offers a wide range of styles and levels, including restorative, pre- and postnatal, and, of course, Kripalu. “I’ve worked with a lot of different styles and I wanted the classes to reflect my experiences,” she says. Flamm confides that one of the more challenging aspects of opening a new studio was simply finding enough qualified instructors to teach 19 classes each week. “When I got here, I didn’t know any teacher except for Nevine. I literally had to look through the phonebook and call people up.”
Flamm believes that yoga’s popularity will continue as more and more people search for meaning and purpose in their lives, and she warns they may gain self knowledge they may not have expected. “Yoga is like a metaphor for how you are in the world,” she says. “Whatever comes up for you on the mat comes up for you in the world. However you relate to yourself on the mat is how you relate to yourself in the world.”
Master of Balance and Harmony
“Perpetual inspiration,” WROTE Andrew Bonar Law, a former Prime Minister of England, “is as necessary to the life of goodness, holiness and happiness as perpetual respiration is necessary to animal life.” For Bonnie Brahmani Liebman, founder and director of the Rivertown Center for Yoga and Health in Dobbs Ferry, a source of “perpetual inspiration” is the Hudson River, next to which her bright, spacious studio can be found. “I love looking at the caps of the waves in summer. It would be hard to be anywhere else.”
Well, if history is any indication, she won’t be abandoning her riverfront home anytime soon. Stability has been a constant companion in this 52-year-old, Bronx-born yogini’s life. “I’ve lived in Westchester for 32 years, and I’ve been married for 32 years,” she points out. (She founded Rivertown 12 years ago and has been practicing yoga since 1984.)
“I first discovered yoga when I was pregnant with my first son,” she says. “Then I found a great teacher named Pat Laster in Hastings. She had a great sense of herself, and she was loving, kind and humble. I thought that if this is what growing old is about, sign me up.”
Liebman’s twice weekly classes with Laster turned out to be life altering. “It encouraged me to explore inward.” She embarked on a path that eventually led her to the Kripalu Center, where she would earn her first teacher certification.
At Rivertown, Liebman offers a variety of classes to accommodate her unique and diverse group of students. “The heart of what we do is Kripalu. However, we offer a lot of different classes,” she says, including kids’ yoga, mommy and me, and restorative yoga. There is also teacher training (Rivertown is a registered Yoga Alliance School), Reiki training, monthly workshops with guest teachers, and retreats with students and teachers to such locales as Italy and Mexico.
To help rehabilitate a chronically aching knee, Riverdale resident Donna Beauchamp started taking classes at Rivertown 10 years ago. Recently she completed her teacher training under Liebman’s thoughtful aegis. “I feel safe in her classes,” says Beauchamp.
Liebman hopes that all students who come to Rivertown will realize the importance of stopping to take time for themselves. “We drop in for this hour to be fully present for ourselves,” which, she adds, is essential. “The Buddha teaches that our essential nature is â€˜body present, heart open, mind awake.’”
David Nayor really stretched his limits to write this article. He is a certified yoga instructor.
Where To Find Your Yoga:
55 Oliver Rd.
50 South Buckhout
Bikram Yoga Ossining
176 N. Highland Ave. (Rte 9)
Breathe Yoga Center LLC
Marion Dale Retreat and Conference Center
299 Highland Ave., Ossining
(914) 909-6739; www.breatheyoga.net
Essential Yoga, Inc.
2 East Ave. (Larchmont & Palmer Aves.)
Suite 205, Larchmont
(914) 834-YOGA (9642)
10 Old Post Rd. So.
74 Brewster Rd.
Katonah Yoga Center
39 Main St.
for Yoga and Health
145 Palisade St.
Sage Seasonal Yoga & Meditation Center
6 Maple Ave.
Mind Body Center
at The Garrison
2015 Route 9 (located within The Garrison Golf Club)
Sun Moon Yoga
27 North St.
The Yoga Center at
260 Stuyvesant Ave.
Rye (914) 967-6080
515 N. State Rd.
193 Union Ave.
62 Main St., 2nd Floor
11 Memorial Dr.
Chappaqua (914) 238-0355
Yoga Samadhi and
328 Pemberwick Rd.
One Depot Plz.
(914) 381-YOGA (9642)
7-11 Legion Dr.
321 Tarrytown Rd., Elmsford
37 W. Main St., Mount Kisco
(914) 666-9642; www.yoga-spa.com
Yoga with Gwen
37 Sheryl Ln., Mahopac