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It’s Not a Stretch

What’s Behind the Booming Popularity of Yoga?

Karoun Charkoudian

Karoun Charkoudian says people try yoga for a number of reasons, such as improving mental focus, easing back pain, improving athletic performance, or just feeling better.

Armed with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology, Karoun Charkoudian took a good job with ExxonMobil in Houston. But a few years into that career, she felt unfulfilled.

“My personality is such that I need to be passionate about what I do, in every moment of every day. So I left, in search of the style of life where I could find that kind of passion,” she said.

Yoga was one of those things she felt passionate about, so she enrolled in advanced trainings and moved to Springfield, setting up a small studio in a building her father owned. “It was supposed to be a stopping-over point, not to stay. But I really fell in love with the city, and found out that there was very little yoga here. It was a good place to begin teaching.”

Three years later, she opened up a larger space in West Springfield, celebrating her one-year anniversary in the new location in January. “We have experienced tremendous growth since moving there,” Charkoudian said. “I really feel like it’s a beautiful yoga community; we are growing, and we have a beautiful staff. I feel so lucky to be a part of this.”

It turns out she’s not the only one searching for fulfillment through yoga. In fact, her years in business have coincided with a remarkable growth curve for what is now a $10.3 billion industry in the U.S.

Yoga Journal, which publishes a periodic “Yoga in America” study, reports that 20.4 million Americans practiced yoga in 2012 — a 29% increase from the 15.8 million participating in 2008. And it’s big business; that $10.3 billion spent on yoga classes and products in 2012 — including equipment, clothing, vacations, and media — is an 87% increase from $5.7 billion in 2008.

There seems to be more room for growth, too, as 44.4% of non-practitioners polled in the study said they are interested in trying it.

“The number of practitioners and the amount they spend has increased dramatically in the last four years,” said Bill Harper, publisher of Yoga Journal. “Companies that want to advertise to the health-and-fitness market for women will want to make sure that yoga is a strong segment in their target.”

That’s true; women are an overwhelming majority in the yoga world, representing 82.2% of the total market.

“Certainly, throughout the yoga industry, I think everyone would like to see more men in those classes, and there’s no reason not to,” Harper told the Coast News in California recently. “I think we know the reasons. They’re intimidated; they’re not as flexible is probably the number-one comment that I hear.”

What’s Stopping Them?

Helen Arnold has heard the excuses, too — but has also seen skeptics change their tune after trying yoga.

As director of Community Benefits and the Oncology Unit at Holyoke Medical Center, she said yoga is featured in support groups for cancer patients at HMC.

“When you do yoga, there’s the physical part, but mentally, it quiets your mind, and that’s really good for somebody who has any stress, anxiety, or depression,” she said, noting its benefit to individuals on a cancer journey.

“A lot of people feel with yoga that you have to be really in shape. But that doesn’t matter because there are different levels,” she said, adding that patients weakened by some condition or other find benefits from yoga. “It really does a lot for anyone with back pain, hypertension, cancer, epilepsy, menopause — those are probably the biggest things.”

Charkoudian said people try yoga for a number of reasons: to improve mental focus, to get calm and relaxed, to ease back pain, to improve athletic or work performance, to lower blood pressure, or just to feel better. But all have to overcome their preconceptions about the discipline.

“People tend to have really strong opinions about yoga, based on what they see in the media or on one class that they took in a style or with an instructor that may not have suited them,” she told BusinessWest. “People think that, because they’re stiff, they can’t do yoga, when that’s exactly why they should be doing yoga. Or because they can’t balance, they think they can’t do yoga. The point is to do yoga to have more flexible and supple muscles, better balance, and better focus — not to start that way, but to work toward that end. That’s why we call it a practice.”

YogaClassSecFrontThat practice encompasses a broad variety of styles. For example, Charkoudian offers different skill levels of Hatha yoga, which emphasizes basic strengthening, stretching, and breathing exercises, with a little bit of meditation, but also yoga based on the Vinsaya tradition, with a faster pace and an almost dance-like flow.

Other styles taught throughout the area include Anusara, a rigorous workout for the body and mind; Ashtanga, which is physically demanding and, like Vinsaya, links every movement to a breath; Bikram, a sequenced, sweat-inducing series of 26 poses, and a very popular option; hot yoga, which is similar to Bikram and performed in a heated room; Iyengar, a meticulous style that emphasizes the proper alignment in a pose and is good for people with an injury or chronic condition; and restorative yoga, which uses objects to prop students in passive poses so the body can experience the benefits of a pose without exerting too much effort.

Then there’s ‘laughing yoga,’ which was introduced to HMC support groups by cosmetic surgeon Dr. Vinodray Shaw.

“He came to our support group for an hour and a half and led the laughing yoga,” Arnold said. “Laughing yoga not only strengthens the mind, but aligns the body. How it aligns the body is, when you take a deep breath and laugh, it opens your lungs and affects every organ in the body.”

Practitioners of laughing yoga initiate laughter as a group exercise, and it typically turns into genuine, contagious laughter. The combination of deep breathing exercises from yoga and laughter exercises, which oxygenate the body and brain, makes participants feel more healthy and energetic.

“It affects the body, mind, and organs, and increases blood flow, which then increases mental alertness,” she said. “Just saying the word, ‘laughing yoga,’ we really had to pull people in. But after two hours, when we had to go, people were saying, ‘when is the next one?’ Really, the whole mood of the room changed.”

Learning Curve

People are now aware of what laughing yoga is and are looking forward to their next opportunity, Arnold said, but that seems to be true of yoga in general on a national scale.

“I found in our support groups that people thought they had to be fit, couldn’t be overweight, really had to be able to move, touch their toes,” she said, emphasizing again that, on the contrary, yoga is an ideal way for people to get fit or recover from injury, all while stretching their mind.

“It’s really good for patients with dementia, people who are losing some of their cognitive abilities, because it increases the blood flow to the brain,” she added. “Yoga really is body and mind together. I think it’s phenomenal.”

According to the Yoga Journal survey, the top five reasons people gave for starting yoga were improved flexibility (78.3%), general conditioning (62.2%), stress relief (59.6%), a boost in overall health (58.5%), and physical fitness (55.1%).

And many of them are just discovering those benefits. Of the survey respondents, 38.4% have practiced yoga for one year or less, while 28.9% have been at it between one and three years. A full 44.8% still consider themselves beginners, while only 15.6% say they’re expert or advanced.

That recent surge in new participants suits Charkoudian just fine. “Our new slogan is ‘step out of your box and onto your mat.’ It’s a challenge for people to step out of their daily lives for an hour two or three times a week, and experience the sense of connection and awakening that yoga does for the mind-body-breath system, and how that translates into their lives.”

Despite a recent proliferation of studios, she feels like yoga is still relatively new to the area, and people are still discovering how it may help them.

“It takes a lot of energy to educate people that yoga is good for them even if they’re really stiff or out of shape,” she said. “A lot of energy goes into that here, whereas, in other areas where yoga is more popular, people already know that yoga is great for them no matter what shape they are in.”

Arnold agrees that locals, even those who have been hospitalized, sidelined with injury, or stricken with cancer, are increasingly recognizing the benefits of yoga, from weight loss and strength building to a more positive mental focus. “It’s general health and wellness, yes, but the part many people don’t realize is that it’s not only for health promotion, but for peace of mind. That’s a really important piece.”

Charkoudian, for one, found peace of mind through yoga, but the road hasn’t always been a straight one.

“I went through a period of burnout about a year ago and did a lot of soul searching in terms of what it was that I wanted through teaching yoga, and who it was that I wanted to help,” she told BusinessWest. “And what I realized was this: when I was at ExxonMobil, I felt like so many people were asleep in their lives. These were regular, educated people making decent money. But it was like they handed their life over to some other entity and just went through the motions.

“What I hope to do with this studio is to help to awaken the people in the Greater Springfield area,” she continued. “We’re not looking to heal sick people. I feel like the worst epidemic isn’t sickness; it’s numbness — after all, people who are sick look to be healed, but people who are numb don’t even know there’s a problem. I want to help to awaken those people who have good lives, but maybe need a little boost, just something to bring more passion and vitality into their lives.”

Certainly, it’s not a stretch to see how the increasingly popular discipline of yoga can play a role in that quest.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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