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Noe Valley Yoga Studios--There's No Place Like Om
By Stephanie Rapp
Perhaps you've peered into one of the storefront studios on your way to the market. You didn't have time to stop -- after all, you still had to pick up the kids, make dinner, pay the bills, and, if you were lucky, snuggle with your honey. But even in your haste, you noticed that the men and women in the window, though bent in strange shapes, looked healthy and calm. The next day you slowed down long enough to watch the cluster of students gathering after class. They were smiling, and they had a kind of glow that you hadn't seen on your own cheeks in a good while.
Let me give you some advice. Next time, stop, pick up a schedule, and make room in your life for yoga. You'll likely discover, as I did four years ago, that practicing yoga will give you an incredible feeling of strength and serenity.
Yoga -- the Sanskrit word for "union"-- is a system of stretching and exercise that connects the mind, body, and spirit. Hatha yoga is yoga practiced through poses and postures, known as asanas. Often combined with pranayama (breathing) and meditation, yoga can be a complete physical and mental workout.
When it comes to places to do yoga, those of us who live in Noe Valley are fortunate. We have at least five nearby yoga and movement studios offering a range of practice and philosophy.
The oldtimer of the group, the Integral Yoga Center on Dolores Street near 20th, provides the most spiritual environment in which to cultivate a yoga and meditation practice. Students meander quietly through the four-story 1905 house, which was purchased by the center in 1970. The primary classroom is on the top floor, in a large room with a turreted ceiling, wood beams, and stained-glass windows. On the main floor, the All Saints Room is also used for workshops and classes. Paintings and photographs of spiritual leaders, such as Gandhi, St. Francis of Assisi, and Martin Luther King Jr., echo the center's focus on diversity. The room embodies the center's belief that "there is one truth but many paths."
Integral Yoga Center was founded by a spiritual leader, Swami Sachananda. Although the philosophy is ecumenical, the center is guided by the teachings of its guru. For this reason, students dress modestly here; sweat pants and loose tee shirts are more appropriate than lycra tights.
The standard hatha classes at the center are called Integral Yoga Style. Each 90-minute class incorporates chanting, eye movements, stretches, sun salutations, deep relaxation, and breathing exercises. Each ends with a short meditation. According to center director Sister Kamela, "The chanting is universal, not religious. It is also optional. And we provide English translations so students can understand the words."
Straddling Noe Valley and the Mission, the center also offers a Spanish-speaking hatha class to better serve the neighborhood. Other classes include ayurveda vegetarian cooking, deep relaxation, and a 14-week teacher training.
Integral Yoga has a changing room, and rents mats for $1. Classes cost less here than at some of the other studios because every teacher is a volunteer. Sister Kamela notes, "We follow a tradition of service."
Service was also what prompted owners David Nelson and Darren Main to open Castro Yoga 18 months ago. "We saw that the gay community had not been well served," Nelson said. But the student body at Castro Yoga has turned out to be a colorful mix -- of men and women, gay and straight, and young and old.
Castro Yoga's street-front studio at 18th and Douglass streets is spare. "We consider it a clean, well-lighted place for yoga," Nelson says. Formerly occupied by a liquor store, the studio now serves "mindful practice" instead of alcohol. Nelson notes the irony, and hopes an hour-long yoga class will replace the cocktail hour as a form of socialization and stress reduction.
Castro Yoga hosts more than 38 classes per week, and makes a special effort to include beginners. Students can start practice at 6 a.m; the final class ends at 9:30 p.m. Ashtanga (a vigorous, flowing style of yoga), Feldenkrais (gentle body movement and awareness), and hatha yoga classes make up the bulk of the schedule. But the studio also holds courses for the novice -- such as Yoga 101 or Meditation 101 -- plus special workshops on topics like "Herbs for the Cold and Flu Season."
A small changing room is available, but you might find it easier to come dressed for class in lightweight clothes. Mats, towels, and water are provided.
Sanchez Street Studio, at Sanchez and 29th, offers the most intimate setting for practicing yoga. Says teacher Carol LeMaitre, "The size of our studio allows for personal attention. Our largest class is 15 people. If you don't show up for a few weeks, people start to worry."
Since opening the studio three years ago, LeMaitre, a dancer and choreographer who specializes in the Pilates Method (a yoga-like conditioning method developed in Europe by Joseph Pilates), has seen a growing interest in yoga and fitness. She says the studio's clientele are primarily neighborhood residents, many of whom walk to class. LeMaitre's own commute is simple; as building owner, she lives upstairs.
In total, 22 yoga and movement classes are held at Sanchez Street Studio each week. Individual teachers rent the studio for classes, which include Gentle Yoga (geared for individuals with joint or muscle pain), Mixed-Level Hatha, and Introduction to Yoga.
LeMaitre teaches a variety of classes -- there's even one for mothers and babies. Using simple props, she takes students through hour-long sessions designed to improve flexibility, coordination, and tone by working deep postural muscles. "A good Pilates class should feel like a massage from within. You are aligned correctly so you can relax."
Just walking into Yoga Shala, at the corner of Castro and 25th streets, will relax you. The carpeted reception area, New Age music, and brewed tea all contribute to a sense of calmness. With more than 30 weekly classes to choose from, students at all levels can find a class that works for them. An added bonus for parents is free child care, offered Tuesday and Thursday from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
For first-time students, there's a four-week Introduction to Yoga course. And like the Sanchez Studio, Yoga Shala also holds mom and baby classes, designed for postpartum needs. But Yoga Shala offers some unusual courses too, for instance the daily Mysore classes. In these 5:45 a.m. classes, named after the region of India from which the practice originated, students complete a set sequence of poses while receiving hands-on adjustment from the teacher. Poses are added gradually, according to each person's ability.
The largest neighborhood studio, Yoga Shala also contains men's and women's changing rooms with showers, bathrooms, and lockers. A small boutique sells props, books, clothes, and music to help you cultivate your own home practice. Look for special workshops with nationally recognized teachers and an upcoming teachers' training program.
When it comes to yoga, some like it hot. Students at Eureka! Bikram Yoga College of India practice in a studio heated to between 95 and 105 degrees. According to school manager Johana Knobloch, the heat ensures that muscles will stretch more easily. It also offers a greater cardiovascular challenge.
Bikram Yoga, created by Bikram Choudhury, an internationally renowned teacher from India, is a routine of 26 poses designed to work the entire body in a 90-minute session. (The advanced Bikram series of 72 poses is offered only in his Beverly Hills studio.) The local college, at Eureka and 20th streets, offers 44 classes weekly, including classes for children and for women who are pregnant.
However, these are challenging classes, especially for the novice. Dress lightly, bring water, and be prepared to sweat. (There are no beginners' classes per se.) As Knobloch explains, "We put everyone together, and there is no hierarchy. Teachers practice along with students." In fact, Eureka! doesn't list the teachers' names on its schedule of classes. "The idea is not to follow a particular teacher but to develop your own practice."
Devoted students attend class every day. Knobloch suggests that attending five times a week for three months is ideal.
Bikram Yoga emphasizes self-realization, and lots of repetition. "Doing the same thing over and over physically is also a mental challenge," Knobloch points out. "You have to find novelty in what you are doing, and that means being in the present."
The college offers free classes, with sign-language interpreters, for deaf students and for participants in drug rehabilitation programs. The studio also provides treatment for chronic pain. Knobloch, a licensed masseuse and acupuncturist, notes that because all the poses are within the natural range of human motion, anyone can do the Bikram series. "It isn't just for young girls or athletes, but for people of all ages and shapes."
So, whatever shape you're in, physically or spiritually, you can find a practice to help you relax, stay fit, and foster your personal development. Those are pretty good returns for an hour and a half of your time.
A Choice of Studios
Here's how to reach the five yoga
centers within close proximity of Noe Valley. They'll be happy to give you a complete schedule of classes, and a description of further discounts.
4450 18th St. @ Douglass
$12 drop-in class (second class free);
8-class card $80 (good for two months)
EUREKA! BIKRAM YOGA COLLEGE OF INDIA
301 Eureka St. @ 20th
$12 drop-in class (second class free);
10-class card $95 (good for one month)
INTEGRAL YOGA CENTER
770 Dolores St. @ 20th
$8 drop-in class; 10-class card $70 (good for three months)
SANCHEZ STREET STUDIO
1589 Sanchez St. @ 29th
$12 drop-in class; 10-class card $90
1500 Castro St. @ 25th
$12 drop-in class; 10-class card $90 (good for two months)