Demystifying yoga with local teachers

Tucker Shelton
STICKING TO IT: Despite what he describes as a "traumatic introduction" to the practice, Tucker Shelton eventually became hooked on yoga and now teaches through the Asheville Yoga Center, Laughing Elephant Yoga and his Tucker Yoga website. Photo by Emily Nichols, courtesy of Shelton

If you’d told a young Tucker Shelton that he’d one day become a yoga teacher, he would have told you to get lost.

Shelton recalls his first yoga class, taken while he was still in high school: “At the time, I’d never done anything like it in my life, so my body was freaking out because it was so much, so fast,” he says. “My legs went numb and were on fire, and I was just so uncomfortable.”

At the end of class, during a final resting pose designed to be meditative and restorative, someone played a didgeridoo over his chest.

“I wish I could say it was like this heart-opening experience, but it was more like this wash of hot, stinky breath coming out,” says Shelton.

Despite vowing off yoga forever, Shelton did eventually try again in college — and got hooked. He now runs his own instructional website, Tucker Yoga, and teaches at both the Asheville Yoga Center and Laughing Elephant Yoga in Hendersonville.

The way Shelton teaches yoga is much different from how he was first introduced to the practice. He focuses on a style called Kaiut yoga, which involves holding seated or supine postures for several minutes at a time rather than blasting through different motions. “A lot of it is very restful and about soothing the nervous system,” he explains.

Asheville-area residents looking to get started with yoga might take a page from Shelton’s experience. Different yoga studios, styles and teachers can each offer completely different takes on the practice, each suited for different wellness needs.

Xpress set out to demystify some of the varieties of yoga available in the area and spoke to a number of local teachers about their yoga journeys — what went right and wrong, how they came to teach and what inspires them to practice.

Fired up

Sierra Hollister, author of Moon Path Yoga and a teacher at both West Asheville Yoga and Asheville Yoga Center, once believed all yoga was “gentle and boring.” She had started experimenting with the practice as a teen, learning poses from books. But as an avid rock climber, she wanted something that would offer a physical challenge. A friend dragged her to her first power yoga class.

“It was sweaty and hard,” Hollister recalls. “But it came through for me. And then the next morning, when I could barely move, I was so sore, that’s actually what hooked me.”

Power yoga, sometimes called Vinyasa or flow yoga, is one of the most commonly practiced forms in Asheville. It typically includes sun salutations — a series of bends, folds and standing postures — interspersed with poses that are designed to stretch, strengthen and open different parts of the body. The practice often incorporates ujjayi breath, from the Sanskrit word for “victorious,” in which long, slow inhales and deep, steady exhales are synchronized with each movement.

Many hot yoga classes are also based on a power yoga approach. As the name implies, hot yoga is performed in a heated room, usually between 90 and 105 degrees; practitioners say the temperature helps the body to move more easily.

Adi Westerman, owner and founder of Hot Yoga Asheville, was drawn to the style for the way it combines physical rigor with mental focus. “You have to be adapting to the heat and the environment and the instruction all at once,” she explains. “You really can’t be thinking about other things. Your mind really focuses in the moment, and that’s really what yoga is to me: being in the present moment.”

From the heart

Years after her first power yoga class, Hollister discovered what she calls the yoga of her heart: Kundalini yoga. “It’s one of the few practices that you can find nowadays that still retains ancient teachings,” Hollister says. “It hasn’t been changed. It hasn’t been stripped of its spiritual dialogue and meaning. It could never be reduced to just an exercise.”

Kundalini yoga involves kriyas (sequences or complete actions) designed for specific purposes, such as “opening up the lung meridians or supporting the body in forgiveness,” explains Hollister. “There’s in the neighborhood of 8,000 kriyas, so there’s kriyas for everything.”

The poses that make up the kriyas are typically repetitive motions, coupled with pranayama, or intentional breathing. Each class also includes a warmup with sun salutations or a flowing sequence of poses, as well as a final meditation that might include the use of a gong or chanting a mantra.

Although the “ultimate destination” of Kundalini yoga is self-realization — “remembering the deep inner connection that we have with each other and this planet and the cosmos,” in Hollister’s words — she says students don’t have to be on a spiritual path to participate in or enjoy the classes.

Open up

Barbara Schauer
PEACEFUL PRACTICE: Barbara Schauer of Weaverville Yoga teaches Anahata yoga, a style that aims to open the heart through deliberate postures and rhythmic breathing. Photo by Katherine Brooks, courtesy of Schauer

While Barbara Schauer, owner and teacher at Weaverville Yoga, dabbled with yoga over the years — and, like Hollister, lived in a Kundalini ashram (spiritual learning center) for a while — it wasn’t until she encountered Anahata yoga that she found her calling. During one of her first classes, she felt as if the depression and anxiety she’d struggled with for years had become something solid and slid off her body to the floor. After the experience, she was determined to bring the practice to others. “I want this for everyone,” she says.

Anahata, a Sanskrit word meaning “unhurt,” is also the name for the heart chakra — one of the seven main energy centers in the body, according to Hindu traditions. In Anahata yoga classes, students move through basic seated, standing and supine postures while maintaining what Schauer calls a “rhythmical balanced breath” to focus the mind. The poses and verbal cues are designed to open the heart and expand the chest in a way that counterbalances the hunched posture many have in their day-to-day lives.

“If you look around at people right now, everybody looks like a turtle,” says Schauer. “Everybody is curled over. … We’re all entranced and captivated by our electronics, and it’s not really normal for human beings to be in that position.”

Make it your own

The same might be said for some of the advanced postures practiced in Ashtanga yoga that involve placing the feet behind the head and binding the hands behind the body. But Christine Wiese, founder of Ashtanga Yoga Asheville, says that the style is very accessible for beginners as well, especially when taught in its traditional form.

Ashtanga yoga involves a series of fixed poses linked together by sun salutations and held for a set number of breaths. In the Mysore-style workshops hosted by Wiese, so named for their origins in the south Indian city, the sequence is broken down into manageable chunks and tailored to the interests, goals and abilities of individual students.

“We give each practitioner their own practice, and they can really take ownership of it so they’re not dependent on a studio or a teacher in the long term,” explains Wiese.

Similarly, Randy Loftis, co-founder and teacher at Iyengar Yoga Asheville, hopes that his students will take what they learn in class and practice on their own. The studio even offers “open practice,” where students are encouraged to practice together without direct instruction.

Iyengar yoga is often known for its use of props: chairs, bolsters, straps, blocks and a wall outfitted with ropes, all meant to support students in accessing and holding postures. The practice itself is alignment based, encouraging students to notice the mechanics of a pose and how it affects them physically, mentally and emotionally.

“How do we take the asana [physical posture] and what the asana has to show us and use that to understand the deeper part of ourselves?” Loftis asks. “Eventually, you’ll study those actions, and then you’ll know how to take care of yourself — ‘Oh, I feel bluesy. I need to do this pose.’”

Going within

Purna Yoga 828 class
FOCUS GROUP: Purna yoga classes, such as the one pictured here, are conducted without music to maintain a meditative atmosphere, says Letitia Walker of Purna Yoga 828. Photo by Paola Nazati, courtesy Purna Yoga 828

New forms of yoga often sprout from older lineages. Such was the case with Purna yoga, which is similar to Iyengar yoga but also offers instruction in meditation and lifestyle choices. “The physical practice [of Purna yoga] itself doesn’t necessarily look that different than Iyengar yoga … but it’s a softer approach. It’s a more holistically oriented approach,” explains Letitia Walker, director of Purna Yoga 828.

Purna is a Sanskrit word meaning “complete,” and the yoga practice is built around the idea of addressing the whole self. While its physical postures, breathwork and use of props are similar to Iyengar, Purna also incorporates “heartful meditation” techniques in every class and “discussion of lifestyle components” based on the yamas and niyamas (a set of internal and external ethics derived from Hindu tradition.)

To help maintain a meditative atmosphere, Purna classes are conducted without music. “We really want to focus on listening to our own bodies and listening to our breath and listening to the inner teacher,” says Walker.

For Pam and Andrew Jones, teachers at Asheville Yoga Center, it was Dharma yoga that led them to adopt a more holistic lifestyle, one that was free from alcohol and drugs, meat and dairy, and encouraged them to seek happiness within, rather than from outside sources.

Dharma yoga is a very physical Vinyasa-based yoga practice that includes sun salutations as a warm-up, followed by a series of standing postures, handstands and other inversions, twists and bends. The end of class usually involves a prolonged guided meditation, or yoga nidra, designed to relax the body.

Despite the demands of the physical postures, both Joneses say the class can be adapted for all levels. Andrew, who teaches a beginner class at AYC, describes himself as “not super flexible” and someone with “lots of issues in the body,” including having a “fake knee.”

Shop around

For many teachers Xpress spoke to, finding the right yoga practice took some time. But all are glad they stuck with it. While taking just one class can have benefits — more body awareness, increased mobility, relaxation — they say maintaining a regular practice can have a cumulative effect on wellness of body, mind and spirit.

“Yoga makes you aware of what’s wrong, what’s right, how are things going … and shines a light on the direction we need to go,” Loftis explains.

Most local studios offer new student specials, or discounted passes that allow practitioners to try out a variety of classes in a short period of time. For those unsure of where to begin, teachers recommend looking at the schedule for classes labeled “beginner” or calling the studio and asking for advice.

“Yoga teachers are happy to match people up with the class that they’ll be able to enjoy and keep coming to,” says Schauer. “And that’s the whole idea is that you should like it.”

And if one class, teacher or style doesn’t work, suggests Shelton of Tucker Yoga, try another before dismissing yoga altogether. He’s grateful that he didn’t stop after that one bad class in high school.

“Don’t give up on it,” he urges new students. “It’s like finding a good therapist or the right medication. It takes time and experimentation, and sometimes it’ll work and sometimes it won’t, and it might change over time.”


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2 thoughts on “Demystifying yoga with local teachers

  1. SpareChange

    Rather than demystifying yoga, the instructors who are quoted mainly seem to wrap it in that much more mystique. This is necessary, because almost all of the allegedly “proven” benefits of yoga are overstated by people selling classes and books. The added air of mysticism and the allure of learning secret, special techniques, is necessary lest people who pay for the lessons decide that in actuality they would be as well off learning some basic stretching and breathing exercises, and combining it with a modest amount of time spent sitting and clearing one’s mind a bit.

    An internet search on, “How many types of yoga are there?” shows numbers ranging from 5 to 50, each claiming some special benefit, and most made up by instructors to appeal to some market niche. Advice that one should try to get some exercise, and maybe turn off the electronics for a while, and have some quiet time to clear one’s mind, would truly demystify things.

  2. Big Al

    There are as many different types of yoga as there are participants.

    Sometimes, it seems like yogis are just paying each other to hang out together.

    Talk about “White People Problems”.

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