Ropes, straps and other implements of potential torture hang on the studio's walls. The shelves are filled with bolsters, pranayama pillows, blocks, mats and blankets. The hardwood floors are polished, and mirrors cover the back wall. A fountain trickles in the background, and a CD player plays soft music. Tonight, an electric heater keeps the room warmed to a toasty level, a prerequisite for sweat-inducing power yoga.
The class is already positioned on the floor, mats parallel, when I arrive. I slip in, hoping to hide. Expecting jumping jacks, kick boxing and Lord knows what else, I'm surprised when instructor Wendy Crumpton leads the group of five women through what seems a "normal" yoga warm-up routine of slow stretching and deep breathing. The pace will pick up soon enough, though.
"Power yoga" is a purely American form: yoga with a boot-camp flavor. This fast-paced progression from one posture to another involves much sweat and loud breathing. "Each movement is linked to some other movement, so you're continuously flowing. It is very heat-producing and somewhat aerobic," says Crumpton, a teacher at Clinton's Center for Yoga and Health. The main point, she explains, is to increase the heat and get the body as warm as possible." That warmth, she says, helps calm the breath and still the mind; then you can meditate.
"Power yoga," which has recently been popularized by celebrities like Sting and Madonna, evolved from traditional Ashtanga yoga, which some practitioners claim goes back thousands of years. Emerging on the east and west coasts at the same time, from teachers Bryan Kest and Beryl Bender Birch, power yoga represents a shorter and sometimes easier form of Ashtanga, which consists of five different levels, beginning with the "primary series." "I've made it through a couple of (Ashtanga) primary series, but it doesn't ring my chimes," says Rebecca Laney, owner of the Clinton studio, and a certified yoga therapist. "It almost takes the athletic type of body and psyche to do it." Crumpton adds, "Very, very, very few people do the fifth series!"
Which brings us back to meditating. "You have to be very aware of your body moving in space," says Crumpton, who has practiced Ashtanga for two years. To facilitate awareness, yogis use a form of breathing called ujjayi (pronounced ooh-ja-ee), in which the breath passes over the vocal cords, creating a unique sound. Crumpton calls it "ocean-sounding breath" (some suggest it's more like Darth Vader). Instead of the mantras used for seated meditation, power yoga uses ujjayi breath to settle and calm the mind. Whether you are seated or flowing through rapidly changing positions, it's still meditation.
Crumpton says her Ashtanga practice has benefited her immensely. "You get to a place where it's less about your physique and more about calmness and spirituality," she says. "Some people think you have to be a Buddhist or a Hindu or some weird religion" to practice yoga, and "that's just not true. I'm a practicing Catholic, and it's deepened my spirituality and my faith."
Because of its fast pace, power yoga should not be taken lightly. Safety is a primary concern. The increasing popularity of Ashtanga around the country has caused many injuries, when yoga newbies take on too much too soon or poorly trained instructors do not provide adequate information and preparation for their students. Laney says people considering power yoga must take time to understand the breathing, alignment and form of yoga. Even "the best power yoga teacher doesn't have time to give (students) the alignment, the concept, the breath, when they go through sun salutations and hit 20 postures in a minute and a half, " she says. Students "need to come in at a lower level," then progress to power yoga, or "cardio yoga," as it is sometimes called.
Debi Lewis, the owner of JoyFlow Yoga in Ridgeland and Flowood, said all her classes have the "flavor" of power yoga, but move more slowly, allowing instructors to take more time to explain the moves to ensure safety. She advises that new students take slower-paced yoga classes before picking up speed. "My regular classes are pretty vigorous already," she says. "They should know the postures first."
Tanya Bailey, who studied yoga with an Indian guru for three years, teaches yoga and pilates at the I-55 YMCA and other sports clubs in the area. "You can really hurt yourself with Ashtanga if you're out of shape," Bailey cautions. "With discipline, though, you can work up through the levels to achieve incredible results. Discipline "was my upbringing," Bailey says. For this native of Russia, who trained as a professional gymnast and served on the Russian Olympic team, power yoga is a way to continue her training. "The postures in power yoga are really elements of modern gymnastics," she explains.
There are no national guidelines or certification requirements for yoga teachers, but you can find suggested minimum prerequisites on the Yoga Alliance Web site (http://www.yogaalliance.com). Before you begin any yoga training, be sure to talk with the instructor about your physical condition and other significant facts about yourself. Most yoga studios offer a range of classes, making progression from one level to the next easy. The teachers will help you find the beginning place that's right for you.
No matter where you choose to go, be prepared to exercise carefully and with discipline. As Bailey says, "Discipline is the power of commitment, knowledge of boundaries, and respect of your limitations."