I HAVE never been able to get into yoga. It's always been a disappointment, even boring. I've taken a few classes, but afterward I never felt that I did anything other than just move around a little. It didn't quiet my mind. I didn't feel more flexible. I never felt I learned anything about the poses and why we were doing them.
Yet I've heard that hatha yoga is not only a way to get much-needed exercise, but it can also help relieve mental stress, chronic pain and improve balance and agility. I know it can be excellent for pregnant women and seniors, and it's a hit all over urban centers such as Berkeley and San Francisco. Doctors, knowing my quandary about finding the right type of exercise for myself, always recommend yoga. It sounds great, but why can't I get into it?
For this month's Trimming Trends series, I took four styles of yoga at different studios. What I found is that yoga can meet my wants for physical activity and emotional and mental balance if I do just one thing -- try and try again.
There are dozens of styles of yoga and hundreds of teachers all over the Bay Area, all with a unique way of coaching.
I found that not only does it matter what style of yoga you're taking, it also matters that you find the right teaching fit for you, even if that fit doesn't happen on the floor of the first studio where you unroll your mat.
90 minutes. $16
Studio: Mountain Yoga, 2071 Antioch Court, Oakland (Montclair district). 510-339-6421, www.mountainyoga.org.
Teacher: Antonia Fokken, licensed marriage and family therapist.
Founded by John Friend in 1997, Anusara "is grounded in a Tantric philosophy of intrinsic goodness," according to Friend's website.
Before class, I chatted with Ann Dyer, owner of Mountain Yoga, about why people take yoga.
"Most people come to yoga because something hurts," she says. It can be stress, a bum knee, a growing belly. "People come to yoga to feel better."
I like the idea of taking a class with a mental health professional. Perhaps her work would somehow blend into her yoga practice, and I would almost get therapy as well as exercise -- bonus!
About 10 minutes before class, I placed my red yoga mat in the back of the medium-sized studio -- typical of a first-timer -- and relaxed. I watched as other students rolled around on their spines while others gathered blocks, blankets and pads. Apparently, you need a lot of stuff to do yoga.
Fokken opened the class with "om," a mantra typically chanted in the beginning of all classes to recognize the movement of the universe. She then read us this quote by Holocaust survivor Viktor E. Frankl:
"Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."
The meat of the class consisted of typical movements and poses. We did the downward-facing dog, warrior poses and a tree pose. About halfway through, Fokken led us to the wall where we practiced the L pose, a challenging one that I surprised myself by actually achieving, and handstands, which I could not do. There was laughter and clapping.
Fokken twisted us into pretzels and had us try parts of the eka pada galavasna, or an arm-balancing "flying pigeon pose," as best we could, encouraging us to listen to our bodies and keep breathing along the way. Throughout the class, she corrected my poses and helped me get into correct alignment. She explained the benefit of poses as we went along.
The class closed with the lights dim and us in the total relaxation corpse pose, or savasana. Fokken offered me an eye pillow for this calming end to a challenging and rewarding class. For the first time, I liked yoga and wanted more.
60 minutes. $15 drop-in with discounts for multiple classes.
Studio: Center for Spiritual Healing, 395 Civic Drive, Suite G, Pleasant Hill. 925-609-9355.
Teacher: Laura Presnick, chiropractor. Presnick has been practicing yoga since 1972, teaching it for more than a decade.
Presnick, who prefers to be called "Dr. Laura," will ask you about any injuries before she starts class. She wants to know if you have a stiff knee or a numb shoulder. She can direct your personal yoga experience to accommodate and even help address those injuries.
Gentle hatha yoga combines different types of yoga into one class. It's not even close to a full cardio workout. It promotes stretching and balance more than anything else. In the yoga world, this class is like water aerobics. It's great for the body but low-impact.
A dozen women were in the class, many Presnick's patients, and some had that stiff knee I was talking about. Although I am not injured, I could benefit from practicing yoga moves that improve my balance. Presnick's class put a heavy, yet still gentle, focus on balance to prevent falls and injury.
I breezed my way through the standing bow pose and tree pose, challenging myself to do the more advanced position in each so I get more out of the class.
Mostly, I felt that gentle hatha was pretty easy and better suited for people with injuries or for seniors with limited mobility.
60 minutes. $14 drop-in with discounts for multiple classes.
Studio: Tierra Yoga, 2192 Railroad Ave., Hercules. 510-724-2848, www.tierrayoga.com
Teacher: Bruce Guterman, a longtime yoga practitioner with a background in psychology.
Tierra Yoga is this darling postage stamp of a place in a new development on the bay waterfront. There were only three people in my class, including me, so this experience was intimate and personalized.
I chose Vinyasa because of its more challenging nature. It's unlike many other forms of yoga where you hold poses for a while. Instead, you flow quickly from one pose to another, often repeating poses, getting the heartrate going.
Guterman led the three of us easily through downward-facing dogs, humble warrior and the chair pose, challenging us to bend just a little farther back and keep our backs just a little straighter each time we did a chair pose.
Though I liked Guterman's class, I wasn't sure my experience at Tierra was the challenge that Vinyasa is heralded to be because of the small class size and personalization. So I skipped on over the next week to San Francisco's Yoga Tree for another all-level Vinyasa class, a 90-minute one with more than 30 people. I felt knocked out and tired about 50 minutes into the exercise. We quickly moved from the standing warrior. to cobra pose on the floor, then up to a downward-facing dog. We repeated the sequence several times.
Like anyone is supposed to do when they are tired in yoga, I spent quite a while at Yoga Tree in child's pose waiting for a second wind. I felt the stretching and work in my muscles the next day.
90 minutes. $20 drop-in with discounts for multiple classes.
Studio: Bikram Yoga Walnut Creek, 2021 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Walnut Creek. 925-988-9642, www.bikrameastbay.com
Teacher: Virginia Lam, former music executive and stay-at-home mom who has been practicing Bikram for eight years and has a Bikram certificate.
Bikram yoga or "hot yoga," where the studio is ideally heated to 105 degrees, sounded like punishment to me.
All the yoga teachers warned me that Bikram was a completely different experience from your typical hatha class.
When I finally mustered up the guts to attend, we started in a room where the thermostat read 109.3 degrees. Bikram, I noticed, attracted more men than the other classes.
Lam is an encouraging, if not pushy, coach. She's doesn't tell you to take it easy; she wants this practice to be hard and for you to feel the stretching and working of your muscles. There is very little spirituality injected into Lam's class.
She says Bikram can be for anyone of any age and, while there were seniors in the class, I was dubious. It's tough.
"The worse thing you can do to your body is you don't move," Lam says. "If you can do 5 or 10 percent of the class, it's 100 percent good for you."
I did about 80 percent of the class, resting in child's pose and drinking my water whenever the heat and the stretch were too much. I felt dizzy once, but heat can do that to me. As opposed to other types of yoga where there can be a combination of any of the 600-plus standard poses, Bikram uses only 26, and Lam says classes are usually the same no matter where you go.
It turned out that Bikram, especially with instructor Lam, was the most challenging of all the classes. I felt my heart pump in some poses. The locust -- a floor pose where you lift both arms and legs and balance mostly on your torso -- and balancing stick -- stand on one straight leg with the other stretched back in a 90 degree angle -- challenged my mind and body. The next day I felt that good-workout soreness. Although more expensive than the others, Bikram is more likely to give you that workout feeling, if that's what you're looking for. And I was.
What I learned
In taking five classes in less than a month, I completed dozens of before-movement "oms," practiced yogic breathing three times, fell -- unbalanced -- more times than I can count and said "namaste" ("I honor the Spirit in you which is also in me") after every class.
I sweated and grunted, mirrored my neighbors' moves to learn how I should move and even quieted my mind and stayed in the moment as I did each pose. Will I become a yogini? I'm not there yet, but I'm on my way.
ABOUT THIS SERIES: "Trimming Trends" is an occasional feature on the various fitness crazes offered in the Bay Area. Features writer Laura Casey tries out a different class each month. If you have a suggestion for a class she should take,
call her at 925-952-2697 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.