By Chelsea Hohn
Sticky rubber mats underneath bare toes sit atop wood floors, carpet, grass, and, in some cases, a paddle board. Sometimes there’s no mat at all, and feet dig deeply into the ground as thousands of yogis come into downward dog in sync. Hundreds of years after the inception of yoga, we’re now practicing in ways that even a decade ago would have seemed to be far-fetched. Yoga has changed and shifted each year, with a dedicated community following along to watch and participate. We now have many different styles of yoga, different ways of practicing, and many, many different places to practice in.
In recent years, yoga has grown exponentially in popularity. Instead of being a niche activity it’s part of the mainstream. It’s become normal, even outside of places like Ann Arbor, where yoga has had a strong community for years.
We talked to 12 yogis from in and around Ann Arbor to take the temperature of the yoga community right now, and we asked them each three questions:
Why is yoga growing so rapidly right now?
What effect will this have on the yoga community?
What will this growth mean for people practicing yoga in the future?
Their responses provide a window into where yoga might be going in the future. Participants all seemed to agree on one thing: yoga might be having a moment right now, but it isn’t going anywhere.
(Editor’s Note: We apologize, in advance, to our many friends in the yoga community — the many, many other very fine yoga practitioners and teachers in the area, as well as our loyal advertisers, and those who’ve steadfastly listed their classes for years in our Crazy Wisdom Calendar — who were not approached by our writer to weigh in on this topic. The article below is just a sampling, and not intended to be comprehensive! We welcome your own thoughts, too, and would be happy to publish them!)
Karen Ufer has been a student of Iyengar yoga for over 40 years and was certified in 1993. She started Yoga Focus over 22 years ago with Ada Cowan and David Ufer. Marlene McGrath and Alicia Rowe are also long time practitioners and teachers at Yoga Focus.
The fact that yoga is attached to a lot of different activities is in fact motivating people to get up and out and moving around. I think that my point of view is a little different because I’ve been a practitioner for 40 years, but, in a way, it’s kind of a non-moment for yoga. Virtually everything has the word yoga attached to it — if everything is yoga, what really is yoga? So the use of the word “awesome” — if you say your morning coffee is awesome, what is the Grand Canyon, what is the galaxy, what is the moon? If your morning coffee is awesome and everything is awesome then the word becomes mindless. So if everything is yoga, how does someone who is beginning figure out what is exercise or what is the study of a discipline that is an art and a science and a philosophy and also has a physical asana. It’s quite confusing for the average person to figure out where to go to seek yoga, and there’s a lot of good yoga in Ann Arbor, and a lot of good exercise. I think those are different things.
It is something that is not an extroverted activity and so I simply make a distinction between the study and practice of yoga and exercise, but you have yoga in the pool, yoga with chocolate, yoga with wine tasting, yoga with balls and ropes and pulleys, and so then you have yoga as a fad, and that works against the whole concept of what yoga is. If a fad can get someone interested in deeper study, I think it has value, but we all have an attraction to things that are fads and they come and go, so it’s not a true way of focusing one’s attention to be constantly distracted by the latest fad.
Yoga has eight limbs. One of those limbs can give you a powerful workout, but there’s so much in the practice that is not just physical exercise. I have students who are only there for the physical component and I do not have a problem with it, but they’re really there for that part, and sometimes that will lead them to a deeper study, but that is their path. My job is the get out of the way and present the material in the best way that I can; I mean the entire scope of yoga, not just the part of the menu that they like.
David Rosenberg has been teaching Iyengar yoga since 1993 and traveled to Pune, India, in 1996 to study at the Ramamani Iyengar Memorial Yoga Institute.
I think Ann Arbor has always had a lot of people doing yoga. I’m teaching more students than I ever used to. I think there are more popular styles like Bikram that up until 10 or 15 years ago never existed. There’s more people doing yoga than are hunting with guns. There are a lot of people out there that say there are two Americas — gun hunting America and people doing yoga. I think some of the types of yoga have been successfully marketed like Bikram or hot yoga. They’ve gained popularity, some are more popular among young people. I do Iyengar yoga and there’s a lot of different people doing it, different teachers but also studios, as well.
I think that the whole movement, the field of movement, exercise, has constantly been evolving in Ann Arbor since the 70s. I see this as one continuous evolution and Ann Arbor is a receptive community to those things. I think it’s great if people can be creative and come up with newer understandings of yoga and helping people and I think that’s a positive development all around.
The inner play of yoga culture has been going on, really, since the early 20th century or before that. Everyone believes it started thousands of years ago, but it’s not as simple as that. Yoga was created by calisthenics from the British army. But what it really underscores for me is that the whole idea of movement therapeutics is an evolving field that fosters creativity with some science behind it. Getting people to move and exercise is generally beneficial for people. At least it’s not extracting oil. I think people are social creatures. As much as we like to say it’s an internal practice, the reality is people like to be together, it’s a social thing. The reality is we’re social creatures and coming to class becomes an outlet for socializing and developing friendship and community.
Christy DeBurton, R.Y.T., trained at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in New York and the Center for Yoga in Michigan and has been teaching yoga since 1998. In 2004, she opened her own private yoga studio, The Yoga Room, where she offers small group classes, private sessions, workshops, a yoga book club, and yoga retreats.
I definitely know that there are a lot more studios now than when I moved here, and even then, there were quite a few. This is just growing exponentially, I don’t think it’s a phenomenon just here in Ann Arbor. I think that hopefully it’s because yoga is a really awesome thing and people can appreciate what it does for them. I hope that the number of students keeps growing so it’s sustainable for new teachers and studios. I think that it’s something that will be interesting to watch. It’s cool to live in Ann Arbor and everybody you know does yoga or knows someone who does yoga. It’s nice to live in a place where people are yoga practitioners and are conscious about what yoga can do for them.
The interesting thing about that is I think we need to be careful that this isn’t all just about commercializing yoga and the yoga industry, because that can certainly get the word out and you know all the cool clothes to wear and all the selfies on Facebook can get the word out, but we need to be careful that it doesn’t send the wrong message. Yoga is a very simple thing that is accessible to everyone, yoga is about liberation from your ego — that’s the overlying message for yoga. I think with all the growth comes the commercialization and making money off of it and that is something that I think is going to be challenging — to keep the true message of yoga alive and what it really means.
The most important thing is that I love that so many people are doing yoga and are passionate about it, and I appreciate that everyone has their own path and there’s so many different options for people to get into it. I hope the true meaning of yoga doesn’t get lost in it. I hope people are about the liberation of the ego and the healing that can take place from practicing yoga.
Michelle Pischea has lived in Ann Arbor since 1998 and began practicing Bikram yoga in 2007. She became Owner/Director of Bikram Yoga Ann Arbor in 2012. She currently runs over 37 classes a week as well as a weekly Youth Yoga Class.
There’s no question that there’s been a growth and I really fully believe that people are always trying to get a good fix to make them feel better, and we all know those never work. But when someone starts doing yoga, they get the mind-body-spirit effect. They get the exercise they need, and they mentally feel better and their spirit, too — everyone feels better. So I think today people are starting to realize yoga is longevity — it’s not an immediate fix, it’s for the journey — it’s not an immediate destination. A lifetime for me, that’s what yoga is all about. Yoga runs through your spine — your longevity of life — so I think that’s where it comes from.
Ann Arbor itself is really into yoga. We have so many yoga studios, different kinds of yoga, which is amazing. Everyone has a different favorite. Everyone that does yoga becomes a better person because they’re happier in life. I don’t see it going away. All these new diets come and go and don’t last forever. Yoga has been around and it’s going to keep going.
I think people are mentally more stable and even insurance companies are starting to pay for physical therapy for yoga, so even insurance companies are realizing it’s a really good thing. I think everyone is discovering how good it is mentally and physically. But I think all yoga is good yoga. Rarely have you heard someone walk out of a class saying I wish I didn’t do that. Everyone is kind of moving in that direction and I hope it keeps going.
Karen Coupland is a Certified Iyengar Yoga Teacher at Harmony Yoga of Ann Arbor. She has been practicing yoga since 1993 and teaching since 1999.
Yoga has definitely become part of the mainstream. I think that it has grown in popularity partly because people are looking for ways to become healthier and to feel better overall and they hear that yoga can help. Their health care professionals may also recommend yoga to ease various ailments, such as back, knee, shoulder injuries, and stress-related problems. Yoga images and news stories in the media have also made yoga more visible, and people are intrigued by what they see and read. There are news stories about celebrities who practice yoga, and many “yoga selfies” posted on social media sites, although, in my opinion, some of these are not particularly helpful for promoting a healthy interest in yoga — skinny, scantily clad women in exotic postures is not what the practice of yoga is about!
Because of the rise in popularity, yoga has become more differentiated than it was years ago. I practice and teach Iyengar yoga, and it continues to fascinate me, which was the most common style taught in Ann Arbor when I first started taking yoga classes more than 20 years ago. But because not everyone likes or needs exactly the same thing, there are many more options available now, from hot yoga and fast Vinyasa yoga, to more slowly-paced and deliberate styles. All of these options can be available only if there are enough people in the community who are interested in trying them.
For the near future, I think yoga will continue to be widely practiced, because it does work if people stay with it. There’s the challenge — finding the right teacher and class for you and developing the discipline to regularly attend over a long period of time, and ideally adding in your own home yoga practice. A dedicated, thoughtful practice over time leads to profound results. A friend of mine was saying that she thinks that people who try yoga just because it’s trendy will very likely abandon it in favor of the next trendy “fitness craze.” But there are also many of us who will continue with yoga even when the next trendy thing comes along, because this works for us. It’s a sustainable practice that we can continue for the rest of our lives at some level. Our practice develops and changes to support us at different stages in our lives.
Jim Gilligan began practicing yoga in 1988 and started formally teaching yoga in 2012. He founded the popular AcroYoga Ann Arbor group and is a certified AcroYoga teacher and AYfit trainer, leading weekly classes, workshops, demos, and jams.
I think people feel emptiness but not in a good way — they’re becoming more and more bombarded with media and static noise... people are connecting with others in a different way than we’ve been programmed for. There’s this big need for quiet and meditation, and yoga is the perfect opportunity, especially a class — it’s a commitment to you and your inward journey. We’re going through a shift as a race and there’s a spiritual evolution of humankind. A lot of people are looking for purpose.
Clearly there are more students every day. We’re moving from fringes to mainstream and that’s more acceptable. More opportunities and studios and teachers and information about yoga for people to find their own way. There are more opportunities for people to become a community and more connection between studios and the students.
I think that this means we become the leaders. We become the models of living a peaceful, nonviolent, spiritually active life following the yogic tradition.
Sue Whitmarsh is the Co-owner/Founder of Breathe Yoga Studio in Chelsea.
We just opened two months ago, people are coming out of the cracks desperate to be here. We have lots of beginners. I think the medical profession is starting to embrace yoga as a form of therapy, and has caught onto the fact that some illnesses can be treated with yoga. I teach kids in high school, and the parents who do yoga think it’s good, too. People are starting younger and I don’t think it’s going anywhere, it’s just going to become more mainstream. Even one class a week eases the tension and stress these kids have. We’re trying to introduce practitioners to the many types of yoga — the exercise gets a lot of people hooked and then we teach a wider understanding of yoga.
Not only will regular classes get fuller, but yoga will start to be practiced by different demographic groups.
Yoga isn’t going anywhere. If society continues to become so overloaded, there’s this draining effect. People are looking for and need more. Hopefully schools will start to incorporate yoga, and it will be incorporated in more senior centers and hospitals. I think a lot of people hear yoga is good for the body, but then stick around for the mental health benefit. It builds community, and I love that studios can become places of safety and warmth.
In 2008, inspired by her yoga teacher, Matthew Darling, and her daily practice of Ashtanga yoga, Ro Coury traveled to Mysore, India, for six weeks to study and experience a submersion into yoga, meditation, and the Indian way of life.
People are longing for connection and community, there’s too much information. When I need to connect to myself, the best way to do that is through the breath. The teacher training part is the biggest explosion. It’s part of the culture of consumerism, and yoga is the ancient art of the whole body connection.
Yoga has always been around and always will be. People who continue to care know it takes a long time, and people who are in it just for the physical often drop out. People who are in it for the eight limbs will be in it for the long haul.
Find out how often does your teacher practice and for how long? Do they talk about the breath? I encourage everyone to move with their own bodies. It’s not like this is a fad, it’s part of who I am and is always going to be. People are always going to try to make money off of something. I believe that there is a teacher for everyone, and it’s really important to let the ego go and stay true to the practice.
Mary Morley is an art education student with a concentration in photography at Eastern Michigan University, as well as a certified yoga instructor. She works at the welcome desk at A2 Yoga and began practicing yoga in 2010. She did her yoga teacher training in Denver, and currently teaches yoga to her friends. She plans on doing additional training at A2 Yoga so she can feel comfortable enough to teach in a studio.
I have noticed a growth in the past years. I’ve been practicing for five years. I’m not sure exactly why it’s happening now, but I know the way America is, people are more stressed than normal, and yoga is a way to center yourself — not just take that step towards exercise but also towards mental change. I think that because the way that yoga is represented in society people are catching onto the fact that this might help with all the stress in life and in the body.
I think that there have already been more studios opening up and more people going into training and instructors, so there might be more competition as a business aspect. But I think the more people who do yoga the more beneficial to the community and the country in general.
In 10 years, there will be more people doing it and I’ve noticed there are more styles of yoga, there are different names. I think it will continue to grow, Ann Arbor is a town where yoga comparatively has more studios, and has had more studios for quite some time. I think in other cities it’s going to grow the way it has in Ann Arbor.
Roddy Wares began studying yoga in 1975. After a workshop with Iyengar, when she was pregnant with her first child, she was inspired to begin a daily yoga practice that has continued to this day. She has taught at Yoga Focus and at her home studio, and she is currently teaching at Inward Bound.
Because the world needs it and people are open to it and once you start — start to change — it’s encouraging. There are so many gifts in yoga and once you start to do it, it spreads — this gives yourself a chance to quiet the mind. It’s such a gift and people are taking advantage of it.
I think it makes people more mindful and healthier. Maybe more tolerant. At first it was weird and out there — people know that now it’s in the mainstream. Different yoga gives you different things — it makes you more gentle and your bad habits fall away.
I think it makes people more open minded and it’s good for kids to quiet down and pay attention to their bodies. Then their minds pay attention. It’s a great way to relieve stress, even once a week makes you feel good, but if you practice more it’s a powerful thing. There are so many kinds of yoga now. For a while it seemed commercialized, and now we’re seeing all these teachers coming up, and it’s so broad and different, but it pulls people in.
Janine is a Registered Nurse and Hatha Yoga teacher (ERYT200, RYT500) who has
enjoyed the practice of yoga since 1989 and has concentrated her studies and practice in the discipline of Therapeutic Yoga. Janine has taught Hatha yoga for ten years and has 25 years experience as an R.N. which has further enriched her teaching. She gives lectures and workshops on the pain relieving power of yoga, as well as yoga for osteoporosis, arthritis, headaches, back pain, and insomnia, and provides continuing education opportunities for nurses on the health benefits of yoga.
We have seen an explosion of interest in the practice of yoga over the past several years. This is coincident with an increased awareness of its effectiveness in maintenance of overall health and well-being. Furthermore, in recent years, yoga has gained wider recognition as an important element of healthcare as an adjunct to more traditional treatments, emphasizing the importance of yoga in the holistic approach to wellness.
The venues for yoga are already quite plentiful in Ann Arbor. This number will most certainly continue to increase, and as time goes on there will be opportunities for further specialization of teachers and an ever increasing number of choices for students.
There will be increased opportunities for people to find the type of yoga class that best suits and accommodates to their changing needs as they age, taught by a teacher with whom they can connect and enjoy a safe yoga practice. Because of this people will recognize that yoga can be a lifelong practice bringing the life experience into alignment and harmony.
Jody is the owner of Be in Awe yoga, and she takes her students from all over the world to Soglio, Switzerland, for an annual retreat. She has a master’s degree in music and designed a course called “Finding Your Voice.” The course combines her love for sound, music and yoga.
I think that we all — individually, in our families, and in our neighborhoods, villages, cities, state, and country — are looking for peace. And we’re looking to lighten the past, individually and for each other. As we become increasingly tuned in to machines, we need something to balance it. So I think we’re looking for peace, we’re looking for a lighter way of being. Looking to connect others to ourselves, and with others in a way that’s genuine and uplifting, and in a way that connects us to that which is important and real.
When I had my annual checkup with my gynecologist, she said, “Jody, because of you, every one of my patients gets asked, ‘Do you meditate and do you practice yoga?’” Many years ago I guess she made observations about me and my well-being. Now research science is catching up and routinely asking, “Do you meditate? Do you do yoga? Do you take walks in the woods?” As a result we’re shifting into the vibrancy that launches autumn, and the vibrancy that launches winter, and the vibrancy that launches springtime. So I think that more and more people are wanting to tune into something other than the frantic, chaotic, anxiety — generating frequency — and as a result will be healthier, will need less medication, and will look for more positive ways to bridge differences. We’ll be healthier and like ourselves more, and when we like ourselves more, we like our neighbors more.
When I first started practicing, the first year I got everyone in my family a yoga book. This was in the 80s, and everyone in my family was seriously concerned about me. Now they all sort of do yoga. They have some sort of a practice that grounds them and allows them to unburden on a regular basis. I am so awe-inspired and I do a lot of traveling, and now wherever I travel, I see yoga mats. Ten years from now most kids will grow up in a family where the parents practice yoga and meditation. The garden will be more alive and energized and connected. Maybe it will be integrated into the public schools. If everyone had a meditation exercise, we’d live in a more peaceful world.