NEW ULM - In India, yoga is an ancient practice.
Here in New Ulm, in a small town that is over 9,000 miles away from that part of the world, it's something that's beginning to catch on.
The answer to why it's catching on locally is not that complex, but it isn't exactly simple, either.
Staff photo by Steve Muscatello
Jill Augustine teaches yoga at her studio at Anytime Fitness in New Ulm.
Yoga is a practice that combines physical stretches and postures with meditation and mindfulness exercises. Its name means 'union' in Sanskrit, the language of ancient India.
Yoga first became popular in the mid-1990s and has grown ever since. A 2005 Harris study commissioned by the Yoga Journal found 16.5 million people now practice yoga. Another 25 million people said they planned to try yoga within the next 12 months. Americans spent $2.95 billion on yoga classes and products in 2004, according to the survey.
New Ulm is a part of that trend.
Rose Cimino began teaching yoga at Quality Fitness close to two years ago at her employer's request. She now teaches yoga classes through New Ulm Parks and Recreation. She said she thinks yoga is becoming more popular because of proven, scientific research studies that have shown it can reduce stress.
"I think yoga's finally becoming credible," she said.
Mainstream fitness clubs are also playing a role in yoga's increasing popularity because they making yoga classes more available and are increasing their clients' awareness of it.
Cimino said yoga was once seen has an activity that had a religious connection.
"Yoga is just a philosophy of self-improvement. It encompasses the mind, the spirit and the body, so it fits with religious beliefs," she said.
Jill Augustin began offering yoga classes at The Yoga Studio (at Anytime Fitness in New Ulm) in April, offering three classes per week and classes have increased to 10 classes per week. She said she receives calls daily from people who would like to register for yoga classes. She continues to add classes to the schedule to attempt to accommodate the demand for basic hatha yoga, mostly from beginners, as well as the specialized requests for gentle yoga, yoga for fibromyalgia, Yoga Stretch and Yoga for Kids.
"As the awareness continues to grow and more teachers emerge, I believe yoga will be huge in New Ulm. It is very exciting!," said Augustin.
People come 'to the mat' for many reasons. Some are seeking higher levels of fitness and stronger, leaner muscles. Some are looking to relieve pain and fatigue from chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, diabetes, chronic fatigue syndrome, while others are looking for ways to access peacefulness and calmness in their hectic lives.
"Any reason to come to the mat is a good reason, but no matter what the reason, people leave feeling refreshed and stronger. Most of us are tired of constantly being measured by some external ideology or dogma. I enjoy giving people the opportunity to experience what it feels like to leave their egos outside the room and release themselves from judgement, expectation and competition," Augustin said.
Augustin's first introduction to yoga was through a book that she purchased about 10 years ago when she was a stay-at -home mom with very young children.
Feeling disconnected, lonely and stressed, she was drawn to the book because it presented yoga as a practical aid for physical, emotional and spiritual health.
However, it was difficult to learn the physical movements - called asanas - with a book, and she didn't take the time out of her busy schedule to seek out a teacher. Over the next several years, and many life experiences later, she found herself drawn again to yoga as a way to de-stress, strengthen her body and find peace.
"Most of us tend to identify with our problems. Our culture encourages us to identify with the struggles of the ego-personality convincing us that happiness can only be achieved from outside sources. I was caught in that experience and it was taking its toll on my body and my mind. I was rapidly gaining weight, feeling fatigue, anxiety, depression and suffering from hives daily," said Augustin.
Augustin spent one month in a yoga ashram, immersing herself in the yogic lifestyle and learning pranayama - breathing exercises; asanas- physical postures- and meditation from masters who have dedicated their lives to teaching yoga.
"I was amazed at how quickly my body responded and how effective movement can be when combined with the power of the breath. I was also amazed by how much stronger I felt emotionally and the hives completely disappeared. It continues to be a daily process of transformation for me. I will always be a student of yoga," Augustin said.
She practices classical hatha yoga with an emphasis on pranayama and meditation at Anytime Fitness in New Ulm. To her, yoga isn't really something a person does as much as it is something a person experiences. She says the teachings of classical hatha asanas are an important tool in the process of this experience.
"It is a system based on ancient wisdom passed down through the ages. Master yogis have known for ages the effectiveness of yoga and now Western science continues to find evidence that supports this knowledge," said Augustin.
The practice of hatha yoga asanas is based on three basic human postures of standing, sitting and lying down. They focus on proper body mechanics, but when practiced with awareness and using the power of the breath, they bring the body, mind, intelligence, nerves and consciousness together into harmony.
A regular and mindful practice of hatha yoga asanas not only strengthens muscles and increases flexibility, but also soothes the nerves, improves neurofunction in the brain while stimulating and activating the internal organs, tissues and cells, she said.
"They help you overcome the physical limitations of the body. Once you become aware of these principles and learn how to feel them in your body, you can apply them to your life off the mat. You can find more comfort when sitting at your desk, driving in your car, standing in the grocery line, working in your garden, playing on the floor with your grandchildren, et cetera," said Augustin.
In her classes at America's Fitness and at Broadway Chiropractic, Vi Plagge incorporates yoga's 'sun salutations' postures as well as the 'warrior 1' and 'warrior 2' and 'the frog', to name a few. After she does some of the pliates exercises she will do a yoga stretch.
"I sometimes call it 'yoga-lates'," she said.
Plagge has been teaching pilates and yoga for five years. She became interested in it after she found out about it through a brochure.
Since she began learning and teaching, Plagge said she has fewer trips to the doctor. She also does yoga exercises with her grandchildren, which allows her to spend more time with them.
"Yoga clears your mind emotionally. It makes you feel you good," she said.
You don't have to have music for yoga, but it's Plagge's preference. She uses the music that is meant for yoga and pilates because it has a tempo that starts up slow and warms up, just like in aerobics.
The difference between yoga and pilates is that pilates is made up of exercises that work on a person's core muscles. Both are 'mind over body', she said. With yoga, a person can do different things that also deal with the cleansing of the body. It can help with indigestion and sinus problems, she said.
In her classes, Plagge has one person who had a knee replaced. She knows another person who told her she really needed it for stress.
"It's about having, feeling you have good posture and the flexibility to move and do things. I know younger people who don't have the flexibility that I do."
To Cimino, the whole benefit of yoga is the connection between the mind, the body and the soul. In other words, the physiological relaxation response that people experience after yoga. "It's hard to explain unless you do it," she said.
Cimino said she loves yoga because of the unique connection between the mind, the body and the spirit that it makes. Many of her students use yoga to relieve stress. Others use it for its physical benefits.
"It teaches you to look beyond and incorporate mindful philosophies that can truly improve a person's quality of life," she said.