Toni Reese had been taking yoga for six months when yoga master BKS Iyengar (pronounced eye-YENG-gar) visited Ann Arbor for the first time back in 1973. In one of the classes he taught at the Ann Arbor YMCA, Iyengar had Reese do a headstand right in the middle of the room.
"Nowadays you teach people at the wall, but he made me very comfortable, and I just wanted to stay there," says Reese, who's now a yoga teacher at the Y. "He empowered people to do things they might not have thought they could do."
Iyengar was a charismatic teacher, but not a famous one at the time. The yoga style that now bears his name didn't really exist in the United States until he visited the Ann Arbor Y.
Several students from among the 40 or so he taught on that visit became teachers themselves, and so began yoga as we know it in Ann Arbor – and Iyengar yoga in the U.S.
Thanks to its special role in that particular slice of yoga history, Ann Arbor's long been a big Iyengar town. That general level of yoga acceptance, along with rising interest in yoga nationwide, paved the way for other styles in what is now a strong, diverse yoga scene.
Ann Arborites now have their choice of more than 40 yoga studios. You can do yoga aided by a rope hung from the ceiling (Russa Yog), yoga in a 105-degree room (Bikram yoga), Vinyasa, Hatha, Ashtanga, Anusara and a whole bunch more. There's yoga therapy, yoga for moms and toddlers, pregnancy yoga.
And that list doesn't include the health clubs and gyms that have cashed in on the attractiveness of any word ending in "oga" by offering classes like spoga (spinning/yoga) or piloga (Pilates and yoga).
The level of commitment and the breadth of styles are unusual for a town Ann Arbor's size, says Dave Morris, fitness director at the Ann Arbor Y, which has 365 Iyengar students in 16 classes, plus another 100 students spread across four classes taught in the more flowing vinyasa/ashtanga style. The Y's program peaked about three years ago with 20 Iyengar classes. It's one of the most developed YMCA yoga programs in the country, and its accessibility has played a major role in growing yoga in Ann Arbor.
"That's what's so neat," Morris explains. "We're more than a yoga studio. There are a lot of people here to explore their wellness and improve their health, and yoga is one way they can do that.
They can get their feet wet, and if they want to commit to it, we have really experienced and dedicated teachers who can take people as far as they want to go."
Through their certification with the Iyengar Yoga National Association of the United States, Iyengar teachers agree not to teach other styles. Students, on the other hand, are free to try whatever style they think might suit them. It's all still yoga, and pretty transferrable.
"You could go to an Iyengar class with a background in any classical yoga style and triangle is triangle is triangle," says Kelly Goodell of Yoga Chelsea. "The teacher is just going to make a different adjustment for you."
Jasprit Singh learned yoga from his father in India, and has experimented all his life with different ways to practice it. Five years ago he developed Russa Yog, an adaptation that uses a hanging rope to help students support themselves and reduce stress on tendons and ligaments. He opened his first Russa Yog studio in Ann Arbor and has since opened another in Santa Barbara, Calif.
"It's hard to compare anyplace with southern California, which is so fitness-oriented, but compared to most other places I'd say Ann Arbor is really up there," Singh explains.
"One, it's a university town, so people are more educated, and they're seeking alternative approaches to life's stresses. It's a fairly vibrant community."
But Ann Arbor suffers from the same time crunch problem that Americans tend to stamp onto everything we do. We want to learn things fast, advance quickly, have it all. Now.
In India, Singh says, people practice yoga more spontaneously – performing a couple of asanas in the park, working with a friend or a family member. It's a much more personal and spiritual practice. You'll have a hard time finding a yoga studio, unless it's in a hotel that caters to westerners. And you don't just walk into an ashram and sign up for a class.
"The style is so different from what people are used to here," Singh says. "(Here) we do a series of asanas, and it's very structured. You understand people are here for an hour and you want them to feel the stress relief and the mind-body connection, whereas in India an hour means nothing in the scheme of things. You want to learn something? Give me one year."
Last year, according to Yoga Journal's Yoga in America market study, 15.8 million people practiced yoga in the United States, making it a $5.7 billion a year industry. More than 20 percent of them had been practicing yoga for a year or less, and about 4 percent said they were interested in trying yoga this year.
Though Singh says Ann Arbor has enough students to go around, the state of yoga in the city is a little like the story of the four blind men who were asked to describe an elephant. One grabbed its leg and announced, "An elephant is like a tree trunk." Another grabbed the elephant's trunk and claimed an elephant is like a snake. The man who touched the elephant's side said the creature was like a wall, and the one who reached out and found its tail said, "No, it's like a rope."
It all depends on who you ask. And you'd be surprised how competitive and heated the rivalries can be. Many prefer to just stick with their own part of the elephant.
Ann Arbor School of Yoga director Laurie Blakeney teaches Iyengar yoga to about 250 students in 15 classes. Through its nonprofit, AASY Action the school also provides free yoga classes twice a week at Ann Arbor' homeless shelter, the Robert J. Delonis Center.
"I don't think there's any animosity or any ill will (between schools)," says Blakeney, the most senior Iyengar teacher in town. "I think people are busy running their businesses. This is what we do, and we're all really excited about it."
Yoga family squabbling tends to center around issues like teaching credentials and safety, sometimes hazy areas in a field where there's nothing to stop you, me or my dog from claiming to be a yoga teacher. Buyer beware. Your health may rest in the balance.
"I would tell people to use your common sense, and even if you're very physical, respect your limitations," says Ema Stefanova of Ann Arbor Yoga and Meditation. "The training is about relaxation and awareness. You can't force it. That's the only rule."
The Yoga Alliance – the closest thing yoga has to a national governing body - sets standards for yoga teachers in technique training and practice, teaching methodology, anatomy and physiology, philosophy, lifestyle and ethics. But the teachers and schools registered with the Yoga Alliance represent just a fraction of what's out there.
While the Yoga Alliance strives for common ground on a national level, Ann Arbor's yoga teachers and practitioners have found their own ways to get along.
An informal organization called Yoga Serves brings people from different yoga schools together to do service projects in the community - cooking meals at the Ronald McDonald House, planting a garden with Growing Hope.
"We don't do yoga, we don't talk yoga," says Blakeney, who currently teaches 15 classes with 250 students. "We do service."
Full disclosure: Laura Blakeney is the mother of Concentrate's publisher Newcombe Clark.
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit News and Seattle Times. She is a regular contributor to Metromode and Concentrate. Her previous article was MASTERMIND: George Hammond.Photos:
Jasprit Singh of Russa Yoga Working on His Rope Yoga-Ann Arbor
Mommy Yoga at Ann Arbor Yoga and Meditation-Ann Arbor
The University of Michigan Crew Team at the Ann Arbor School of Yoga-Ann Arbor
Jasprit Singh of Russa Yoga-Ann Arbor
It's Not All Fun and Games at Ann Arbor Yoga and Meditation-Ann Arbor
Yoga Class at the Ann Arbor YMCA-Ann Arbor
Sometimes Kids Do the Funniest Things-Ann Arbor Yoga and Meditation
The U of M Crew Team at Ann Arbor School of Yoga
Laurie Blakeney of Ann Arbor School of Yoga
All Photos by Dave Lewinski
Dave Lewinski is Concentrate's Managing Photographer. His girlfriend tells him everyday he should do yoga. He has yet to listen...
Dave also started a new blog that can be viewed here.