Carpenter demonstrates the lotus pose. It is one of the positions students can learn in the class she teaches at Encore Dance Academy.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Even before class begins, the atmosphere is serene as participants enter the room with nothing more than their exercise clothes, a thin mat, a towel and perhaps a bottle of water.
Although it's a gym, the room is void of dumbbells, treadmills, stair-stepping machines and other typical exercise equipment. The lights are dim and from the speakers emerge the soft voice of a female vocalist with acoustic guitar in the background. Even the instructor, Sohnya Hamar, speaks in soothing tones.
The scene exudes relaxation and is a stark contrast to other parts of Healthy Changes Nautilus Fitness Center in Soldotna where the norm is loud music, bright lights and instructors shouting motivation to participants in fast-paced classes.
The people in this class are different. They move with slow, deliberate precision. They start in a standing position, but soon are bent over with head and arms dangling and hands on the floor by their ankles.
Katrina Carpenter demonstrates the upward-facing boat pose. Yoga develops both strength and flexibility according to those you practice it.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Like a spring fern unfurling in the warm rays of the sun, they begin to slowly rise in unison to a standing position, pulling themselves upward, seemingly one vertebrae at a time, until they are all erect with arms raised high in the air like lightning rods reaching toward the sky.
"Don't strain, ease into it. Bend those knees. Chest open a little more. Find that focal point and focus in," Hamar encourages the participants throughout their movements.
They hold the pose briefly then, exhaling slowly, relax down to the starting position, ready to do the whole thing over again a few more times before going onto other poses the downward dog, the cobra, the monkey and many others.
The class is yoga. But rather than being part of the flower power, Birkenstock-wearing crowd like some might stereotypically think of yoga participants, many who take Hamar's class are sweat-streaming, butt-busting exercise enthusiasts, concerned just as much if not more with physical health as they are about posturing for inner peace.
"No, it's not just for hippies, but it does make our community a little more hip," Hamar said.
She said it's easy to understand how some could be confused by what yoga is about. Although not a religion, yoga did start out in India more than 5,000 years ago as a philosophy, much of which was highly spiritual and interweaved Hindu or Buddhist schools of thought.
Katrina Carpenter demonstrates a variation of the tree pose. She teaches sport yoga at Encore Dance Academy in Kenai.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Yoga has come a long way since then. Now the spirituality of yoga largely revolves around strengthening the bond between the body, mind and spirit.
"We don't sit and chant, or burn incense, or meditate for long periods," Hamar said.
"We do Hatha yoga comprised of stretching, strengthening and breathing exercises in upright, lying down and inverted postures, and people that take the class are definitely going to sweat," Hamar said.
That's not to say Hamar works people in the yoga class so hard their biceps are bulging, quads are pumping and chests are heaving, as is more typical of other classes she has taught step aerobics, weight training and muscle flex classes. Hatha yoga is done at a slow, gentle pace.
"People in the class definitely work out, but I don't overwork anybody. It's for everybody young and old, the lay person or athletes," Hamar said.
"I want people to be able to fall back on this if they're older, out of shape or have had injuries, yoga can keep them in shape. They'll use their bodies and get healthier with each class."
"I feel great very relaxed and stretched," said Brenda Bryant of Kenai after completing Hamar's class Saturday morning. She's been taking yoga for three months and said it has helped her overcome many aches and pains.
Sohnya Hamar, left, leads students through yoga postures at Healthy Changes Fitness Club in Soldotna last week.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
"I'm recovering from an accident and this helps me stretch things out. I have more flexibility and it does a lot to relieve tension," Bryant said.
"I also sit all day long at my job, so it's nice to be able to come in and stretch out and work into the moves," Bryant added.
That's not to say that yoga requires contortionist skills. There are some advanced poses that require extreme skill, but just like not everyone who decides to lift weights begins by benching 300 pounds, these difficult poses are worked toward over time.
Hamar said from time to time, people will tell her, "Oh, I can't take it because I'm not flexible."
Hamar's reply is, "People only need to be flexible in their minds to take yoga, and their bodies will fall into place."
Hamar said yoga helps those who may not have learned good exercise techniques earlier in life.
"A lot of people didn't play sports when they were younger, so it's important they learn to breathe and stretch and maintain good postures to prevent injuries. Yoga teaches them that," she said.
Hamar was quick to point out that yoga is taken by many with a solid background in sports and physical conditioning, as well.
"Yoga can translate into people doing better at other activities. It's amazing to see what can be accomplished with weight lifting and other sports and activities once their flexibility comes in," she said.
The frequency of athletic injuries also can be reduced by regularly taking part in yoga.
"In cycling and other classes, people want to just work out and go. They may only stretch minimally at the beginning of the workout and not at all at the end because they're in a hurry. So, they'll take the yoga class," she said.
By doing so, participants can basically devote their entire workout to stretching exercises.
"Biking, running and weight lifting can also develop certain key areas, but maybe not others as much. Yoga works everything, so it really well rounds people," she said.
Unlike some activities where people push to determine who can bench the most or run the fastest, yoga is focused solely on the individual.
"It's not like some of the other exercises where people push, push, push. Yoga is noncompetitive," Hamar said.
Hamar said she's getting people in her classes who come to the gym just for yoga. She speculates the class is popular due to the emphasis on self-awareness which can lead to better physical and mental health.
"Life is so busy. We're always on the go and have somewhere to be, but yoga slows it all down and people need that."
Much like Hamar has noticed yoga helps those interested in fitness, Tara Slaughter, owner of Encore Dance Academy in Kenai, said yoga is offered at her facility due to its benefit to dancers.
"Body awareness, flexibility, body alignment, exercise, relaxation, injury prevention and recovery yoga is important to dance for many reasons," Slaughter said.
Slaughter said the difference is often as clear as night and day between a dancer involved in yoga from one who isn't.
"You can 100 percent see the benefits in dancers that have taken yoga. Their dancing definitely improves. I know, even for myself, I've gained strength throughout my body and flexibility in my hamstrings that has helped with dancing and kicking," Slaughter said.
Slaughter said the yoga classes are taken by people of all ages from a wide variety of background.
"Business women on their lunch breaks, retired men it's just average people from all walks of life that take the class and it's growing as more people become interested," Slaughter said.
She believes the popularity of the classes is due in part to how dynamic yoga can be.
"Yoga's ever evolving, and since it's always changing you can take it for years. It can be modified for an individual or for a group, or can be adapted to beginners or those that are very advanced at performing more difficult poses," Slaughter said.
She explained that even though there are universal yoga poses incorporated into her classes, she tends to blend them, while also incorporating other physical activities.
"There's focus on breathing and relaxing, but we don't focus on meditation or the spiritual thing. It's about exercise," Slaughter said.
"It's sports yoga a blend of Hatha yoga and Pilates (physical movements designed to stretch, coupled with breathing patterns), kung fu and tai chi all together. We do set poses, but we flow them all together," she added.
At Kenai Yoga in the Blazy Mall, there also is emphasis on accomplishing moves through a gentle, flowing manner. Owner Lynn Morgan said the classes offered can accommodate all levels of fitness, ability and weight.
"All you need to begin is comfortable clothing and a commitment to yourself," Morgan said.
These classes include Hatha yoga taught by Morgan and "hot yoga" taught by Rick Resnick, which is 26 postures done in a heated room. Kenai Yoga also hosts Mindful Therapies Yoga taught by Laurie Schaeffer, which focuses on prenatal yoga and yoga for children.
"A lot of people come and use the classes almost like a form of physical therapy. Some are people with old injuries. Some want to prevent future problems by taking care of their bodies," Morgan said.
Morgan said this happens not just as strength and flexibility increases, but also as people become more conscious of themselves.
"People become more aware of their body and the space around them and how they move. They begin to move and do things more safely from a physical standpoint," she said.
From helping people think about safe ways to pick up heavy objects to improving their balance so they can put a shoe on while standing on one foot, yoga helps with things people use in everyday life, Morgan said.
"Since taking yoga I can spend hours lying on the floor playing with my grandchildren, whereas before I would get stiff and couldn't do it for long," said 61-year old June Harris of Kenai.
"I've done a lot of different types of exercises over the years, but for me, personally, I like yoga the best. It always leaving me feeling refreshed and not worn out," Harris added.
Morgan said controlled breathing is also an important aspect of practicing yoga.
"We're a society of habitual shallow breathers, but you have to ask yourself 'Why do we take a deep breath before doing something hard?' We do it because it gets the blood supply moving and the diaphragm pushes down on the organs massaging them.
"The breathing can teach us to really focus, to bring things here, now, into the room, into the body, into the present. Not worrying about the past and present," Morgan said.
The self focus yoga promotes has psychological benefits, according to Morgan.
"People can be hard on themselves, but this teaches them to nurture themselves. It also helps with self image," she said.
Focusing on the self is one of many reasons Pam Hays of Kasilof enjoys yoga, and as a psychologist with Central Peninsula Counseling Services, she believes others could benefits from yoga, too.
"I like to think of people holistically when I work with people and yoga does that through four domains: the body because it's physical, the mind because you have to learn to focus, the social because with a class it's a social experience, and the spiritual because it can be spiritual if people choose to view it that way," Hays said.
She said yoga can help those dealing with depression and anxiety by building self confidence. It can instill a sense of calm especially during tough times.
"People can call upon it at different times of day, such as in a stressful meeting at work when they start to feel their stomach tighten and the neck knot. They can take deep breathes, pull themselves in and calm themselves, even if they can't do the poses.
"No one knows what they are doing and they are still listening and paying attention, but inside they're calming themselves down," Hays said.
Ann Marina of Soldotna taught yoga at Kenai Peninsula College and currently teaches yoga at the Fitness Place in Soldotna. She said yoga was a great relaxer for students even in the stressful college environment.
"They've said that it helps calm them before giving speeches, and helps them unwind after math and other stressful classes. Some have also said that the yoga helps them relax and sleep better at night so they have more energy during classes," Marina added.
There are many reasons people take yoga. Although there may be a lot of differences depending on why and where yoga is taken, there is still one basic premise not all postures may be attainable by everyone, but yoga itself is within reach for anyone willing to give it a try.
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