Thursday, July 19, 2001
Palm Pilots: Yoga Center teachers (clockwise from upper left) Kathleen Karachale, Diana Balesteri, Andy Seplow and Tay Scott take students by the hand and lead them to relaxation.
I can''t help it. It''s like a reflex. When I walk into the wildflower-filled entryway of the Yoga Center of Carmel, I come eye-to-eye with a statue of Kwan Yin, the Buddhist Goddess of Compassion, and I exhale involuntarily. Inevitably, the next breath I take is slower, deeper. It happens every time.
I''m here on a Saturday afternoon to attend a free 12-hour Yoga Marathon commemorating the relocation of the studio into a remodeled Sunset Center cottage. Underneath a long wooden bench, a neat line of Birkenstocks, Ugg boots and sneakers await reclamation by relaxed owners padding up quietly on bare feet. As I slip off my flip flops and grab a mat, my breath seems to slow even more.
In the yoga room, stained glass, Buddhist wall hangings and icons of all faiths donated by countless visitors add to the peaceful current rippling through the place. Students sit cross-legged on their mats, quietly listening to hypnotic music as teacher Diana Balesteri instructs us to start focusing on our breath. She guides us into a series of gentle cat rolls as we warm up our spines.
"Tight lives mean tight bodies. If you free your bodies, you can free the world." She laughs. "It''s quite a concept."
Balesteri''s words permeate our consciousness. Eighteen students circle the room, ranging from young and supple to old and so creaky a simple toe-touch is out of the question. Balesteri demonstrates the asanas, or poses, and goes around the room offering gentle corrections and pillows to those who need extra support. "It''s all about listening to your body and letting go and surrendering while staying on the path," she urges in her soft voice.
And herewith I notice what seems to be one of the laws of yoga: Balesteri''s words, taken out of context, don''t have much impact. But combined with deep breathing and gentle stretching, they resonate through our weary souls. It''s an odd thing--cynicism evaporates like dew here.
The class ends with shavasana, or the corpse pose. Balesteri suggests we open up to the abundance of the universe while we lie on our backs with our eyes closed, palms up. We finish with the group chanting "Om," considered the "sound of the universe," and bidding each other "Namaste," Sanskrit for "I salute the divine light within you."
Then it''s time for the next class, and teacher Kathleen Karachale, 57, glides like a ballerina with perfect posture through the room, stopping to give a rapid series of hugs to anyone in her path. As director of the center since 1993, she has seen the yoga center become a refuge for its 500 members: "a home that doesn''t ask anything of them," a place she encourages students to decorate with anything inspirational to them--whether it''s a picture of the Dalai Lama or a statue of the Virgin Mary.
"Yoga is not a religion; this place is a center to enhance people''s own tradition," she explains. "We explore ourselves using our body, but the body, mind and spirit all are interconnected."
Karachale''s session is soothing and invigorating at once, and gives way to Andy Seplow''s class. Seplow emphasizes qualities like kindness as essential parts of the yoga practice. "It''s not about being a gymnast and contorting into amazing positions," he says. "You can do beautiful asanas, but if you are a jerk, you haven''t gotten it."
I leave class feeling refreshed, and upon glancing in the mirror am shocked at my improved posture. Wanting to cement in the feeling, I return the next day for Seplow''s Sunday morning class. Sure enough, as Seplow greets the class and invites us to lie down on our mats and start our focused breathing, my anxious to-do list recedes further and further. That''s another law of yoga: it always works.
There is something extremely safe and comforting about this space, given that we are all essentially strangers lying with our eyes closed inches apart from each other. Seplow asks us to place our hand just below our navel and begin to focus our attention there. "In Asian cultures, this area is called the hara, and is a vital life force," he tells us. "If unencumbered, it will have a significant impact on our well-being."
It''s not just the words Seplow is speaking but the soothing, peaceful quality of his voice that tangibly relaxes the room. Another yoga spell has taken hold. At this point, I hear some gentle snoring.
After 10 minutes of deep breathing, Seplow has us work with partners to enhance our stretching. I am paired with Mark Marino, farmer/manager of Earthbound Farms, but in this room, just another yogi on the path to self-discovery. Marino started classes last year after the farming life started taking a toll on his body, and soon found that his mental and spiritual health benefited along with his physical well-being. Even after breaking three ribs snowboarding this winter, he made the commitment to return to yoga.
"You come here and there is such a joy, a freedom," he says. "You learn the principles, and I try to carry them into the trenches, but it''s hard. You can tell when people come out of class they have lightened up. Our society is so anti-everything here."
Kristen Innocenti, a local artist, acknowledges how "airy-fairy" all this yoga talk probably sounds. "It''s hard to explain, but yoga helps you see what''s happening in your life and not get caught up with the drama," she says.
Karachale adds, "Without the drama we have to stop and face ourselves and ask, ''who am I?'' The body draws you into the moment and gives you a glimpse into the present reality. Ultimately all we have is the present. We can watch our thoughts or let them take us away--it''s our biggest challenge not to let our thoughts steal life from us."
Seplow, like other teachers at the center, encourages his students to incorporate a childlike joyfulness into the yoga practice. Tay Scott uses colorful imagery as she guides her students through class. "Imagine your breath is filling your lungs like a blueberry muffin rising in the oven," she instructs. Scott begs her students to customize the class to suit their own needs, and not to compare themselves to those around them. "Nothing makes me happier than seeing eight people in my class all doing different things--I want people to experience yoga as fun."
After class, just as it always does, a deep sense of peace spreads through me that lasts throughout the week. It seems the frantic thoughts usually bouncing around in my brain have actually stilled. I realize that when the stress is released and the tension of doing things drops away, I am free to be me--not defined by activities and accomplishments, but simply an indefinable soul. Yoga gives me that balance between the interconnection with the world and the right to be an individual who is unlike anyone else. As Scott says, yoga is union. There is an enormous sense of self-confidence and creativity that stems from finding my mind quieted, my body strengthened and relaxed, and my spirit full. And I can count on it every time.