What's Behind the Yoga Craze?

by Amanda Winch and Hayley Adnopoz | 5/8/14 3:58pm

After some deliberation, we have come to the conclusion that our friendship has been built (in part) upon a love of two things: messy buns and elastic waistbands. While there is definitely some camaraderie in consistently looking like you just woke up or wearing gym clothes to create the illusion of fitness, you may be surprised to learn that the vast majority of people don’t view sweatpants with quite the same admiration that we do. Searching desperately for a community that would appreciate our unique sense of style and disdain for restrictive clothing, we ventured down to Mighty Yoga in Hanover for a class.

Having both practiced infrequently before, we were encouraged by tales of studios full of spandex and the promise of flexibility. But after arriving five minutes late and listening to yoga buzzwords (“breathe in,” “downward dog” and “flow through your vinyasa”) through the closed studio door, we were intimidated and left. We figured we had no business messing with our vinyasas (much less flowing anything through them) given that we had no clue what a vinyasa is. We did snap a pretty sweet selfie with the logo, though, as proof that we did, in fact, make it over there.

As true novices to the practice, it is hard for us to see yoga as anything more than glorified stretching. Although yoga feels awesome and offers a nice reprieve from work that won’t leave NARPs like ourselves cripplingly exhausted, neither of us has ever gotten involved enough to get through an entire class without the urge to surrender in child’s pose for the entire hour. But after finally finding a place where Lulu’s are not only the appropriate but the expected substitute for jeans, we knew we couldn’t give up on yoga so easily. So we decided to find some people who “get” yoga a little better than we do, and ask them about it.

We both initially attended yoga classes to convince ourselves that we were exercising, while staying mostly stationary. Surprisingly, even the most intense yogis we reached out to seem to express a similar sentiment, leaving us rather reassured about our progress thus far. Rebecca Jacobson ’15, who has now practiced yoga on and off for six years, said she initially started yoga for PE credit in high school because she, like many of us, hated running and being sweaty.

“I’m naturally pretty flexible, so I thought it would be an easy way out,” Jacobson, who practiced yoga four times a week in high school, said.

Others sought to supplement vigorous athletic activity with something more therapeutic.

“I used to lift a lot and suffered a lot of back pain and muscle tightness as a result,” Jake Leichtling ’14 said. In his experience, yoga helped with stretching and post-workout pain. He is not alone in this belief.

“My doctor actually recommended I begin practicing yoga to help offset muscle pain I was having from water polo and swimming,” Taylor Magnuson ’15 said, suggesting that the physical benefits of yoga are substantial enough to garner the support of the medical community. Yoga classes are now available to all students, Upper Valley residents and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center and College employees, through the Fitness and Lifestyle Improvement Plan, which aims “to increase overall general fitness and health awareness within the college community.”

Coaches, quick to heed the advice of athletic trainers, have likewise developed an appreciation for the practice. Just ask any member of the Dartmouth rugby and football teams which, like many other varsity sports teams, recently incorporated yoga as an optional component of the workout regimens of their athletes. Abby Markowitz ’16, a member of the cross country and track and field teams, uses yoga to improve her performance.

“Yoga is a great way to prevent injuries and complement my training routine,” she said. “It’s a great activity to do on an off-day to help recovery.”

Participants are taking time to tend to their muscles, which many fail to do otherwise by their own volition. There is undeniable merit in taking time to unwind between workouts and schoolwork.

While the reason for taking up yoga might not be the most profound, the reasons for continuing it are.

“I ended up sticking with it because I noticed a lot of really incredible mental health benefits in addition to the physical ones,” Jacobson said. “By focusing on your breath and body awareness while practicing yoga, you simultaneously learn how to live in the moment.”

With our busy schedules, many of us fail to allocate enough time to strengthening our mental health, despite the vast benefits that doing so confers.

Many of the more avid yogis we connected with spoke about the ways in which yoga allows one to completely disconnect from cares and obligations.

Libby Buttenwieser ’15 described studio time as a chance to “completely tune out your thoughts and connect with yourself.” The idea of not simply placing latent anxieties on the backburner but actually parting with one’s worries for an hour a day likely sounds ludicrous to the high-achieving, heavily-burdened Dartmouth student. Yet, as Buttenweiser explained, yoga emphasizes cutting out stressors like grades, internships and job searches, and replacing these with the realization that “everything, in that particular hour and a half, is perfectly fine.”

Sarah Whittaker ’16 has found similar benefits in her yoga practice, which has taken her all the way to India.

“I started practicing yoga about three years ago and had the opportunity to study it for a bit in India, where it is much more of a lifestyle and is even sometimes used as part of medical treatment,” she said. “Even though it can be very different here, I love how many people practice yoga at any level because it is so good for the body and for stress relief.”

As Leichtling put it, yoga gives him an opportunity to clear his mind and manage his stress.

“Knowing that I have a mechanism for tangibly changing my outlook and attitude is really reassuring,” he said.

Cecelia Shao ’16 helped us get an idea of what an hour in the studio feels like, both physically and emotionally.

“In the studio, we focus on the breath to shut out distraction, inhaling positive energy to cleanse the spirit while exhaling emotional pollutants,” she said. Shao acknowledged that such a statement likely seems absurd, but allowing oneself to relax in the practice can generate a profound emotional effect.

“Everyone moves as one in the studio,” she said. “We breathe the same air, and move together into silence. You establish a sense of intimacy without words by making yourself open to the shared experience.”

With these rave reviews, we started to question our own intimidation. Why was it that we felt too inexperienced or out of place to reap the bounty of benefits yoga seems to boast? Perhaps, we wondered, it is the culture surrounding yoga that acts as more of a deterrent than the exercise itself. Jacobson seemed to connect with this sentiment.

“I sometimes feel uneasy trying out a new studio if I’m not dressed in Lululemon,” Jacobson said, speaking to the tendency to associate pricey or popular yoga apparel with skill level. She pointed out, however, that this idea contradicts yoga’s basic message: “finding peace with yourself and not judging others,” as she put it.

“I’m not particularly into it or in it,” Alex Jones ’16 said when we asked her about yoga culture. “If popular opinion of yoga is based on getting in shape and wearing cute yoga pants, I think it does a disservice to yoga on the whole.”

As two unpracticed yogis seeking something more profound than a hour of sweating and bodily contortion, it has served us well to think of yoga as “poetry for the body,” meshing physical well-being with one’s spirituality.

At times, the Dartmouth bubble seems difficult to escape; we become wrapped up in trivialities, actively contributing to and combating a sense of low-burning anxiety that seems impossible to avoid. Within this familiar realm, maybe we would benefit from taking a step back and breathing through a yoga class. After all, those who take up the art seem more than enthusiastic about the improvement they’ve seen. For the two of us, however, these are pretty long-term goals; first, we should probably focus on being able to get to Mighty Yoga without running away in fear.

Shao is a former member of The Dartmouth staff.