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Berkeley’s Yoga boom attracts Americans

By Priyanka Sharma Special to the Daily Planet
Saturday September 30, 2000

Lisa Taylor’s curiosity made her take a Yoga class 11 years ago. The former modern dancer now teaches at two Yoga centers in Berkeley. For her, Yoga is not just a job. It’s a way of life, affecting her at both physical and spiritual levels. 

In February, she went to Rishikesh, a pilgrim-town in India, to learn more about Yoga’s roots. Rishikesh is revered for its association with saints and spirituality. “I wanted to journey to the roots of Yoga,” said Taylor, who is 35, but looks 21. Taylor’s classes at Fourth Street Yoga are normally packed. She has students of all ages, from the twenty somethings to the seventy year olds. They are primarily Americans. Most of them are regulars.  

Berkeley has at least six other Yoga centers. While some Indians question the authenticity of the Berkeley Yoga boom, nobody questions its popularity. 

Megan Starkey, 35, a mother of two, began taking classes on the recommendation of her chiropractor, to deal with chronic back pain. She practices every day, and tries to attend a class every week at the Yoga Center on Addison Street. “I enjoy the practice, and it keeps me out of pain, which is important. I also really enjoy getting in shape and being flexible and stronger. For me, it’s a way of strengthening my back muscles, as well as a way to slow down and relax.” 

Starkey’s case is not unique. Most of the people interviewed had started Yoga while recuperating from some kind of injury or discomfort.  

Ulysses Hillard, 28, is an engineering hydrologist at Natural Resources Consulting Engineers, Berkeley. When he’s not working, he’s often bicycling or dancing the Argentine Tango, both of which leave his muscles sore. “The exercise is good, but you get tight in places. Bicyclists typically have very tight butts. One thing you can do is plain stretch, but Yoga’s supposed to have a better method to it. I don’t know. I’m not sure. That’s why I want to try it out.” Hillard underscores that he does not want classes that focus on the spiritual or meditative aspect of Yoga.  

But according to Ruth Goldstone, 31, a Yoga instructor through UC Berkeley’s recreational sports program, one leads to the other. “It often starts out that way, and as people start getting the physical benefits, then it leads to them being curious about the larger aspects of it. So, even if it starts out in its less pure form, some one who stays with it will grow into it and go deeper into the teachings,” she said.  

Most students corroborated her statement. The Yoga centers organize meditative retreats and workshops regularly for their students. 

Deborah Johnson, 48, runs a clothing business geared to the Yoga community. “Yoga is joy,” she said. “I do Yoga to get in touch with the quiet side of myself. It fits my lifestyle and my beliefs, as its a non-denominational type of practice and yet very, very spiritual. It’s a very open and wide practice, in which, many people can find their own way.” 

But according to some Indians, Yoga may have lost its way here. “This is pure commercialization,” said Vikram Arora, 32, who runs an Indian music shop in Berkeley. 

“I attended one of these classes, and had to pay $10 for it. Why should I go there again? And a lot of these teachers don’t really know the pure form of Yoga, as it is practiced in India.” 

But Goldstone disagrees. “It probably would be a more pure experience if the training did occur in India. I have Yoga-teacher friends that have gone to India and studied and definitely been enriched by the experience.  

But I still think that a lot of the Yoga happening here is and can be a pure experience. It depends on the commitment of the teacher.” Taylor, who has been to India, says that there are a lot of different Yoga-traditions in India, which have been evolving for thousands of years since the Vedas, and are still doing so today.  

Though the Bay Area is home to thousands of Indians, those interviewed said they are almost never seen at Yoga classes. According to an informal survey, many Indians would like to go, but do not find the time to do so.  

“Most Indians in the Bay Area are here on H1-B visas, which means that they’re here to work. And so, everything else takes second priority,” said Sandeep Singh, who’s doing his masters degree in Information Systems at the University of California at San Francisco.  

Taylor has a different theory. “Indians already have the spiritual foundation – it is so widespread. It is so much a part of their lives. 

They now want what we have – material success. We may have material success, but we’ve lost the spiritual aspect in the west.”