Lifestyle

Pack of downward dogs: Web site creates community for Island yoga teachers, students

Mercer Island Reporter

Finding yoga classes on Mercer Island has never been as easy as it should be. Rounding up the available options of teachers, studios and techniques has been akin to herding cats — a lot of work to find the best way to improve your downward dog pose.

But now local instructors have banded together to form a cohesive yoga community so that Islanders interested in the ancient Indian practice of stretching, strengthening and breathing can access them through a central resource.

Two years ago, Rachel Lowe, a fitness and yoga instructor, was looking for classes on the Island and was surprised at the lack of organization among the far-flung studios.

“It sounded like things were happening in school houses, at the VFW Hall and private homes, but weren’t being advertised outside those doors,” Lowe said. She missed the sense of community she felt around yoga in the Seattle neighborhoods where she was attending classes.

So last September, she gathered a group of instructors she had found on the Island to get better acquainted with one another’s styles and philosophies.

Out of that meeting, they resolved to create a Web site that would bring their services out into the open and make them more accessible.

Lowe’s husband, a former Microsoft employee, created mercerislandyoga.org.

While the various instructors are still spread out in studios across the Island, descriptions of their different techniques and locations are now integrated into one place on the Web site. It includes teacher biographies with a full calendar of classes and schedules.

Shawn Mulligan, an instructor who specializes in yoga for plus-size students and others with limited range of motion, said that as someone who gives private lessons in her home studio, being connected to others on the Island has been helpful to her own practice.

“I learn something from every teacher about how I want to teach,” she said.

Their different areas of focus offer choices covering a decent range of the yoga spectrum. In Mulligan’s Iyengar style, a gentle but intense practice, students hold poses for a prolonged period of time while paying close attention to their precise muscular and skeletal alignment. Other methods, such as Hatha Flow and Vinyasa yoga, concentrate more on the swift movement between poses for a more athletic workout. Teen and senior classes offer programs geared toward the bodies and preferences of different age groups.

All yoga, no matter what the style, is guided by the underlying philosophy of uniting the mind and body for a greater sense of health and well-being.

It is practiced to increase flexibility, blood circulation and mental clarity. Studies have suggested that yoga may help manage asthma, arthritis and carpal tunnel syndrome.

But as with any form of physical activity, there are risks associated with yoga, said Mercer Island physical therapist Douglas Free, and it’s important to be smart about it.

“You can hurt yourself if it’s too intense,” Free said. “You have to listen to your body and what it’s telling you.” That means not twisting yourself into a pretzel just because the person next to you is doing it. Students of different abilities are often in the same class, and Mulligan said that the Type A personalities on Mercer Island need to be careful that they’re not pushing themselves too hard just to get it right.

“It is more important to keep the integrity of the posture than to look like the model on the cover of Yoga Journal,” she said.

Free recommends consulting a doctor before taking up yoga to address a particular condition, and to keep instructors informed of any possible health issues, such as pre-existing injuries or high blood pressure.

The physical practice (Hatha Yoga) is only one branch of the yoga “tree,” which includes cultivation of the intellectual, emotional, spiritual and ceremonial selves. One branch of that tree is Karma Yoga -- the practice of living selflessly in order to serve others.

The Mercer Island yoga community, as it continues to refine its organization and plan what’s next, is looking to cultivate that practice as well with classes in which they devote their proceeds to cancer awareness and other causes. “It’s not just a community group,” Lowe said. “One of the goals is to enrich the community.” They also have plans to open another studio on the Island devoted completely to yoga, in addition to the homes and multi-purpose spaces where they are currently teaching. Having their practices under one roof, they hope, will lead to even greater cohesiveness.

The word “yoga,” after all, means “union.”

On the Web: www.mercerislandyoga.org

WHICH TYPE OF YOGA?

Different styles offered on Mercer Island

Iyengar

Focuses on the subtleties of each posture. Poses are typically held much longer than in other schools of yoga, so that practitioners can pay close attention to the precise muscular and skeletal alignment this system demands. Props, including belts, chairs and blocks are used to help accommodate special needs or structural imbalances.

Viniyoga

A therapeutic, gentle practice designed to integrate the physical, emotional and intellectual transitions experienced throughout life. More customized to individuals needs. Focuses on breath and breathing into areas that need healing.

Kripalu

Emphasizes meditation and breathwork. Encourages inward focus and spiritual attunement and deep concentration, leading to a complete release of internal tensions.

Vinyasa, Ashtanga and Power Yoga

Faster-paced, dynamic practice combining breath and movement for a more intense workout. Focus is on building strength, flexibility and stamina.

Power Yoga leaves more variations open to the individual instructor, while Ashtanga (which moves through a set of Vinyasas) relies on more fixed, sequential movements.

Other classes:

Club Emerald offers Power Vinyasa Yoga. Call 232-7080 for membership information.

The JCC offers basic yoga on a drop-in basis for all fitness levels. Call 232-7115 for more information.

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