Yoga’s everywhere...but are we losing mind and spirit traditions?
Now is typically time for creating resolutions for the new year, ranging from “learning to balance a checkbook” to “trying not to insult my in-laws.” But the most common resolutions involve losing weight, getting healthy and finding more time for yourself. As these goals get committed to paper, phone or tablet, people begin to research their options—and many land on yoga, a centuries-old practice that has become a hot-ticket fitness trend across the country, to get in shape and reconnect with their bodies, quiet their minds and reduce stress.
Yet the definition of yoga is changing, altered by the widespread availability of yoga and the many styles and offshoots of the practice. Right here in Chattanooga, the yoga community has grown exponentially in the last several years, with teachers and studios popping up all over town, offering everything from Beginning and Power Yoga, to more restorative forms, to more extreme variations such as Acro Yoga, Aerial Yoga and Yoga on Paddleboards. This growth is exciting, as it provides more opportunites for more people to be welcomed into the community—but some say there are drawbacks as well, as the growth is also changing the meaning of what constitutes a yoga practice.
Sue Reynolds remembers a time in the ’70s when yoga in Chattanooga was limited to one teacher at the YMCA. “Betty Ray was her name,” Reynolds recalls, “and she volunteered there, taught, and was never paid for a long, long time, probably 20 years or so. I was the young kid in town...I took her classes, and subbed for her quite a bit. And she was really glad to have somebody to sub because we were the only two.” Reynolds says that she knew of people practicing yoga at home, but outside of Betty Ray, there just weren’t public classes available. So Reynolds started teaching in various venues around town, churches and community centers, and began building a following.
As a few more teachers, like Becky Dempsey, began arriving on the scene and interest began to grow, Reynolds saw the need for a dedicated yoga space. “In 1998, Becky and I had the idea that we would like to start a yoga studio,” Reynolds says. “We found a spot, where Zanzibar is now, and our opening [of ClearSpring Yoga] finally came in November 1999. Becky and I already had established yoga classes, at Sportsbarn and the Y, so we didn’t have trouble getting students. They just flooded in. We were packed. And they were very excited to have this studio open.”
In fact, Reynolds and Dempsey were overwhelmed. “I remember calling a yoga friend in Nashville and saying, ‘Would you please consider moving to Chattanooga because I cannot handle all of this by myself. I need more teachers,’” says Reynolds. “We don’t have that problem anymore.”
Reynolds says that throughout the early-growth years, she knew every yoga teacher in town.
Kim Eisdorfer, owner and instructor at Toes Yoga in Brainerd, echoes that, adding “That’s impossible now.” Eisdorfer moved to Chattanooga in 2006, began teaching shortly after, and says she can see a great growth and shift in the yoga community. “I’ve kind of lost touch,” she says. “There are so many studios. I used to have a handle on it. I’d look at a schedule and think, ‘I know this person, I’ve been to their class, I know their style’… and now, there are probably more people I don’t know than I do know.”
Eisdorfer and Reynolds acknowledge the benefit of having so many teachers and styles to serve a growing interest, but both express concern that this growth has included a shift in the focus of the practice from a holistic health regimen to a purely physical one.
This concern stems from the trend, both locally and nationally, of intensely physical classes that lack a meditative and spiritual component, which are foundations of yoga practice. Yoga’s beginnings are in meditation. Yogis would sit in meditation for hours at a time hoping to reach samadhi, or enlightenment. The asana, or physical practice of yoga was developed as a way of supporting the body for that mental practice.
“What I fell in love with was the whole package,” Reynolds says. “It wasn’t a workout I was looking for at all. I just fell in love with the whole emotion of it—and the body part too.” Echoes Eisdorfer, “It was an exercise that I enjoyed doing, but that was kind of a side benefit. It wasn’t the main focus of the practice.” Now, they say, the shift towards the asana becoming the main focus of the practice means meditation and breathwork are becoming overlooked.
Madia Swicord, formerly of Madia’s on the Southside and now co-director of the Chattanooga Yoga School, based at Sportsbarn, agrees. “Asana has become such a primary focus—but we know that it’s only one-eighth of the practice,” she says, referencing “Patanjali’s 8 Limbs of Yoga,” which counts the physical practice as an equal component to breath, ethical standards, self-discipline, withdrawal of the senses, concentration, meditation and enlightenment.
Swicord’s entrance into yoga in Chattanooga involved studying the philosophy of yoga for years on her own, but she hadn’t really connected to an asana practice until she found a class that suited her, and realized “this can be a physical avenue for me to dive deeper into my mental [focus].”
She opened Madia’s in 2000. “I felt the community needed this,” she says. “The Southside in 2000 was not an attractive place. It was scary for a lot of people, but I saw the vision,” she says. She attracted a large, eager following as well. But her goal was never to create a purely physically based curriculum.
Like Reynolds and Eisdorfer, she views the trend of extreme physical practice with some doubt. “I love to work hard, I love to push,” she says. “But, I want it [to] also manage what’s going on in your mind. Speed keeps you entertained and distracted, which is the antithesis of yoga.”
She advocates a more holistic approach, noting that “Compartmentalizing is one of the problems with our culture, even in Western medicine. It’s like, ‘Let me look at your arm,’ and the rest of your body is nowhere to be found. What’s happening in yoga is the same thing. Yoga is to integrate, it’s not to separate. You want to feel that integration, you want to feel that mental, emotional, spiritual, body and breath.” She believes that yoga is a whole-person practice, not limited to building the perfect body, but expanding to include finding ease and contentment with all parts of the person.
Even with their hesitations, all three teachers see the growth of the Chattanooga yoga community as positive. They point out that regardless of the reason for a person’s interest in yoga, the benefits beyond the physical are garnered. This unconscious gain of mental and emotional benefits allows for people to not only improve themselves but the community as well.
“This is a town that has grown tremendously,” Swicord says. Reynolds agrees, saying, “I see it all as a part of the growth of the consciousness movement. There is a whole lot more awareness of the holistic person, body, mind, spirit. I think we’re certainly moving in that direction, so that’s a good thing,” she says.
Says Eisdorfer, “Hopefully all the studios and new growth in yoga will make a more mindful, present, peaceful community.”
As you make your New Year’s resolutions, could it be time to to dig a little deeper and give yourself the gift of a body, mind and spirit renewal by resolving to take up a yoga practice? With a huge wealth of yoga opportunities in Chattanooga, there is sure to be a class that will fit your needs. And, whether you’re looking for it or not, maybe it will change your perspective, change your attitude—and change your life. That’s a resolution to get behind.
Editor’s note: The term used in this article’s title, “Eastern calisthenics,” is quoted from the current co-owner of ClearSpring Yoga, Anthony Crutcher.